I have always memorized things, totally useless information. I can't remember my age most days, nor do I want to, but I can recite the states and capitals in alphabetical order, always leaving Alaska and Hawaii completely off the list because they were not states when I memorized the others. I also remember lines from lullabies and bedtime stories, and even some poetry from my freshman literature class.
"Hush little baby don't say a word, Momma's gonna buy you a mocking bird......" No, I have no idea who wrote those lines, but I remembered it this morning when I began putting this article into words. There was a mocking bird that lived somewhere near my house, and I had a cat named Kitty Fluff. Our house had a tin roof. Kitty Fluff had a bad habit of climbing the black walnut tree, leaping over onto the tin roof and making herself at home on my window sill. She usually woke me up by scratching on the window screen that was just above my head, and I would open the window and let her in to sit a spell. This was our secret morning ritual from spring till fall, every year. And then the mocking bird came.
Usually in those days I slept on a feather bed, but there were pillows that were stuffed not only with feathers but also with the softest of plants. Take yellow bedstraw for example. Legend tells us that the Virgin Mary prepared the manger in Bethlehem with yellow bedstraw, and maybe she did, because this herb's honey scented flowers and hay scented dried foliage were often used as mattress stuffing.
Galium verum, more commonly called lady's bedstraw or yellow bedstraw was introduced from Europe. It has become naturalized in North America and grows quite freely in many areas of dry fields and meadows, open woods and along roadsides. This perennial herb can grow up to 3 feet tall. It has rough surfaced, narrowly lance shaped leaves about an inch long and they grow in whirls around the stem. They are covered with soft hairs on the underside. Numerous tiny bright yellow flowers bloom from June theough August in dense elongated clusters. It reminds me a little of the goldenrod, but the clusters are more pointed and are usually upright, where the weight of the goldenrod blooms pulls its stem downward.
Many years ago yellow bedstraw was used in cheese making. A strong extract of the leaves and stem acts as a curdling agent. Some herbalists still suggest making cheese by this method, but bedstraw is no longer employed in the commercial product. The plant also furnished two dyes, a red one from the roots and yellow from the flowers. I was not too interested in the yellow one, because my hair had enough yellow in it, but the red one intrigued me and I added it to my list of red dye makers. Sometimes the yellow dye was used by dairymen to color cheese. The red root extract suggested to herbalists of long ago that the plant might be useful for halting bleeding, There is no scientific evidence to support any medicinal uses of this herb, so it is no longer recommended. The dye is certainly not medicinal, but I still might use it occasionally.
Now all this information brings me back to Kitty Fluff and the mockingbird. I slept on a featherbead, made years ago by one of my ancestral grandmothers, but my favorite pillow was stuffed with a few feathers and a lot of yellow bedstraw. The bedstraw made the pillow smell good, but the hand stitching on one end was loose. Sometimes I stored tiny secret things in it, like the petals of a dried rose, bird feathers I found, a tiny piece of the softest moss, things like that could be easily tucked into the loose end. Covered by the softest pillowcase, no one would find my secret hiding place.
Now remember, my room was upstairs and away from the rest of the sleeping quarters in the house. I had noticed that a bird was following Kitty Fluff when she came to my window, it was even meowing, sounding a lot like Kitty Fluff herself. That told me it was a mocking bird, and it just simply would not leave that cat alone. Before I could sneak her into my room, the mocking bird swooped and Kitty ducked, and a few times the mocking bird hit the screen leaving a feather or two in its wake. I collected quite a few feathers, and tucked them into my pillow.
One morning, when I removed the screen to let Kitty Fluff in, the mocking bird flew in , too. I was on my bed, Kitty Fluff was on my bed and the mocking bird was swooping around my bedroom, diving for Kitty, losing feathers with every swoop because he kept crashing into the light, the wall, my dresser and the lamp. My mother yelled: "What's going on up there?" And I said, "Nothing, Momma, I am cleaning my room, getting cobwebs outta the corners. No need for you to help me!" And my mother took that as the truth. In the meantime, I opened the window wider and put Kitty Fluff out on the roof, hoping the bird would follow. But that crazy bird had taken a likin' to my room and seemed to be checking out everything there. Feathers were flying before he finally went swooping out the window chasing Kitty Fluff down the roof. I think Kitty Fluff had a smile on her face as she led him in a merry chase across the roof and back to the walnut tree.
And what did I do? I picked up all the feathers that bald mocking bird left behind and stuffed them into my pillow along with the rose petals, the moss and the yellow bedstraw.
I never did tell my mother.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Poppysue for the thumbnail, and to Evert for the other two photos of yellow bedstraw. The photo of the feather is from Public Domain clipart.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 11, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)