(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 1, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
"Don't you break that plant, chile, that there's the devil's milk," .....Aunt Bett said as I fell asleep cradled softly in grass very near cypress spurge.
It is a wonder I grew up with a sane thought in my head after listening to my Aunt Bett and Granny Ninna when I was supposed to be sleeping. They had so many theories, beliefs, and disbeliefs about religion, mythology, life, and death that I could easily have grown up believing a thimble full of soil mixed with six drops of creekwater, sipped at midnight by the light of the quarter moon, barefoot and in my nightgown, would assure me of true love. Well, of course I just made that up, but I think you get the idea. I loved those stories that I was not supposed to hear. I soaked them up just like the most porous sponge in a bucket full of water, and here I am many years later, smiling at every memory. It is because of them I have studied ancient cultures, religions, arts and philosophies; it is because of them I love all forms of nature. It is because of them I wake up some days wondering if all these lopsided memories contributed to the gray that is running rampant through my hair.
We went to the cemetery quite often, about once or twice a month on sunshiny Saturdays, starting in early spring and usually ending by late October. Whole families went, and took dinners to eat on the grounds, tools to eat with, and tools to work with. Families tended their dead as lovingly as they tended their living. They cut grass with push mowers whose blades the men had honed to razor sharpness the night before. They weeded, they planted, they carried buckets of water to clean off the memorial stones, and rakes to clear away the debris of time. The older children tended the little ones, and those of us who were three or four, well, we played hide and seek behind the huge marble and granite tombstones that loomed over the graves of ancestors that we had never known. When we got tired, we stopped where we were and dropped down for a nap near the cushiony soft graveyard moss. Aunt Bett would say: "Go to sleep now in this nice soft grass, but be careful you don't break the graveyard moss."
Euphorbia cyparissias is now an invasive plant in most places. We called it graveyard moss, Aunt Bett sometimes referred to it as spurge, and more often in conversations with Ninna, she called it the devil's milk. I wondered about the word "spurge" and asked her what that strange word meant. She told me that some of our Native American ancestors used it to promote vomiting, or purging. It is a very soft, feathery plant, and in early spring, it has a cushiony soft mint green bloom that billows in clusters, just like a ball of the softest cotton in the gentle wind. It grew all over the perimeter of the cemetery, and provided a comfortable edge around the family of graves.
A heritage of Scots, Irish, Welsh and Native American can be quite volatile. I have my Celt genes at war with my Native American genes, both equally persuasive. The Welsh called the plant the devil's milk and dared not look at it. The Native Americans called it spurge, and not only looked at it but drank it as a medicine to rid themselves of stomach pain. Aunt Bett told me to sleep near it, but never break it. It is no wonder I can never make up my mind about much of anything.
Cypress spurge is invasive. It restricts the growth and reproduction of surrounding plants. It is also poisonous to hay eating animals. It flowers in late spring and off and on throughout the late summer. In some cultures it is used deliberately as a ground cover in cemeteries, as it was in the cemetery of my childhood. In most countries, it is not tolerated. It contains a latex sap and was used by older cultures as a treatment for skin conditions and to relieve cancerous growths. At the same time, it can be a skin irritant. It was also used in the same way as castor oil is used today, as a treatment to ease stomach discomfort, even as it also acted as a purgative. What a dichotomy! Sleep near it, but don't break it! Because it grew around the perimeter of the cemetery, I think we were told to sleep near it, but not touch it, so we did not go beyond its borders and get lost or hurt. It was their way of keeping us in sight and safe.
So my friends and I would fall asleep near the pillow of cypress spurge and nap comfortably, until we were called to our places with the friends and families to join in the fun of dinner on the holy ground that held our ancestors. We celebrated our lives as we mourned the loss of our loved ones. And so it was throughout my childhood, I grew up and the spurge continued to grow along the perimeter of the graveyard.
Over the years I moved from the mountains to Louisville, and in my yard there I planted a clump of cypress spurge that had come from a sprig of root in our old cemetery. When I moved from Louisville to western Kentucky, I brought my little clump of cypress spurge with me. I planted it in a rock garden in the front of my house, then when it became crowded, I moved it to a shade garden at the side of my house. When I needed it as an underplanting, I planted it beneath a tiny magnolia in the back yard. It wasn't until the past few years that I learned it was an invasive plant. It has not invaded my yard, but only grown where I placed it; I am sure if I did not tend it carefully it could easily take over my world. Sometimes I look at it and remember it growing in the cemetery of my youth. I remember sleeping nearby, knowing full well that I must be careful not to break it and spill the devil's milk. After all, the word cemetery comes from the Greek word that means "sleeping place".
Sometimes I would like to ask Aunt Bett about the dichotomies of the world. I already know her answer: "Ain't that what life's all about, chile? Dichotomies and decisions?" Well. I think she would be right. Somehow it all reminds me of the road less traveled.
***Warning: Cypress spurge is considered toxic to animals and people and can cause illness and skin irritations.
All sources for this article came from the writings of my family. The Greek word for cypress spurge was confirmed in Wikipedia.
All photos are from my own garden.