(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
"Walk soft as a whisper on pussytoes, so where you go, nobody knows."
I don't know where that line came from, but years ago I heard it so many times when I came running into the house, it could be that my mother made it up. At the time I didn't know it was the name of a plant, but with Aunt Bett around it didn't take me long to find out.
Most plants that Aunt Bett and I gathered were used for her home remedies, but sometimes she had another use for a few of them Pussytoes was just such a plant. When the time was right for gathering a plant's leaves or its roots, or perhaps its flowerheads, Aunt Bett always knew. I thought she had an alarm clock in her mind that rang whenever it was time to pick poke, or gather mullein or dig the roots of the daylily. She always said she went by what the moon told her, and I tried that, but the moon never said a word to me. I just did whatever Aunt Bett told me to do, and one day she said we were going to gather pussytoes.
By now you know the questions already: "Aunt Bett, ya mean we're gonna gather up some cats? Whattya doin' with cats? You don't mean Kitty Fluff, do you, 'cause if you do, she'll scratch you to pieces." Aunt Bett assured me that we would not be gathering up cats, and I was surely relieved. I'd already lived through Tommy Turkey, Porky the pig, dealt with a snake or two, and had a major confrontation with a possom, not to mention the scare when we gathered cowslips; I really was not ready to tackle a cat.
Pussytoes, Antennaria neglecta, is a plant that is native to North America and grows in pastures, open woods and often can be found growing in prairies. It is a perennial herb growing perhaps to a foot tall, and it spreads by runners and usually forms a thick mat. It has lance shaped leaves that are green on the topside, and whitish below. Tiny tubular flowers bloom from April through July on tall stalks. They form dense white terminal flowerheads surrounded by white bracts on the male plant and pink to purple bracts on the female plant.
In spite of its rather delicate appearance, pussytoes is a strong plant. It spreads itself by a network of runners that appear to discourage other plants from growing near it. It is quite invasive, being a dense mat on the surface of the ground, as well as underneath, and as such could very well take over a garden if it is not controlled. Plants that grow with it or nearby are often smaller than their normal growth would be.
We usually didn't have to go far to gather pussytoes, most of the time only about as far as the back of the garden. Sometimes I wandered further up the holler above my house and found them growing in a few sunny spots on the road. When I saw the soft cottony blooms I always filled my pockets with them and took them back to Aunt Bett.
She told me a little about the plant, and surprisingly enough it was not used as one of her remedies. She told me that some of her ancestors extracted a gum from the plant stalks and used it for a chewing gum, and she also told me that at times it was said to rid a body of head lice. When she made that announcement I was ready to run for my life, but she assured me that she didn't think it really made much of a difference, so she would rather use the seed of wild columbine for that remedy. Of course I already knew about wild columbine seeds, so I changed that subject pretty quickly.
"Well, then, Aunt Bett, I gathered a buncha pussytoes for you, why did I gather them if you aren't gonna use 'em?" "Mothballs", she said. "They make real good mothballs!"
So the pussytoes were gathered and she showed me how to prepare them to use in drawers, trunks, and chiffarobes or any other place where clothes were stored. She made sure the stems were dried first, then she gathered the short stems in a little bundle of 5 or 6 blooms. She tied the bundles with twine. The last thing she did was to place them in the corners of all the places where her clothes were stored. I thought that was a great idea, and I gathered some for myself. I had a tiny little chest in which I stored my most treasured things, along with my church sweaters. Now church sweaters were special, usually hand knitted with little collars and sometimes designs knitted in. I especially remember the one that had reindeer on it, that was my Christmas sweater. I carefully placed bundles of pussytoes in the four corners of my chest, and then since I had so many bundles, I put a bundle between each sweater.
My grandfather always gave me a huge candy cane for Christmas. It was very thick and quite long and was wrapped loosely in cellophane paper and tied on each end with a red ribbon. I was not fond of pepperment candy at the time, but I didn't want him to know it, so I placed it in my little chest, put a couple of bundles of pussytoes on top and then carefully folded my reindeer sweater and put it on top of the candy cane and pussytoes. More sweaters were added from time to time, and I outgrew them as kids always do.
The next winter my mother decided it was time to see which sweaters I could still wear, so she started taking them out of my chest. She took out the ones on top, then got to the reindeer sweater. As she lifted it out of the chest, with it came the stickiest mess attached to the next sweater, and even to the one below. "Sharon," she yelled, but I was standing right there, and I thought surely something had crawled into that chest and died. It was that bad. "What is this nasty mess? You have ruined your sweaters and now it won't matter if they fit or not. What have you done this time?" I was clueless. But I sure did have a mess to clean up.
Since that last Christmas, nearly a year had passed, and that included hot summer weather even in the mountains. The long forgotten candy cane had melted, oozed out of the cellophane and took up residence with the cottony pussytoes right between my sweaters. I would like to tell you that it all came out in the wash, but it didn't. I would also like to tell you that I went unpunished, but I didn't.
Maybe I will just tell you that I never again added pussytoes to places where my clothes were stored. Well, I never did hide another candy cane, either.
The thumbnail photo is from Wikipedia Public Domain images. Other images of pussytoes are the excellent work of DiOhio, the single bloom; and Kennedyh, the stalks with blooms, both from Plant Files. The candycane is also a Public Domain clipart image.