It was the beginning of fourth grade, and I was not quite 9 years old. At the beginning of each school year, we were visited by the county doctor who lined us up and gave us the required immunization shots for all school kids. He also weighed and measured us. Oh, did we ever dread that day. It came time for the fourth graders to line up, and I was all aquiver. I hated shots. It was the anticipation that hurt more than the needle, I know, but I swear that needle grew larger every year. Some of the girls cried, and some of them faked their tears, but I was not a crier. I got to the head of the line and old Doc Collins took one look at me and said: "Well, you are a little 'un, let's see how much you weigh." I stepped up on the scales and felt the top bar touch the top of my head then heard him push the weights around on the scale. He said: "Hummmmmmmm." Then he wrote something on my chart.
Doc Collins looked me up and down, thought for a minute, then he said: "Your mother's not teachin' this year, is she? How 'bout we skip you this time and you take this note I'm writin' home to your mother, then we'll see you down to the office in a couple of days." So he wrote the note and sealed it in a plain white envelope with my name on it. I said: "Doc, is somethin' awrong with me?" And he answered, "I don't think so, little lady, but you ain't biggern a minute, and I want to talk to your mother 'bout what she's been feedin' you." I weighed 47 pounds and I was the smallest kid in class, but I was also the youngest.
I thought about it for a little while, but mostly I was secretly enjoying the fact that I had not had to feel the sting of that oversized needle. My days were filled with climbing mountains and trees, walking wherever I wanted to go, and my thoughts rarely turned to what I ate, unless I happened to have a controversy over eating the meat of one of my critter friends. Things were pretty good for me, so I was not worried.
My mother read the note old Doc Collins had sent home. "Lawdy, lawdy," she said, "I reckon I need to talk to Aunt Bett." I walked with her down the road to Aunt Bett's house. "What did Doc Collins say, Momma, not a thing wrong with me, look at me, do I look like somethin's wrong? What'd his note say, Momma." She just mumbled till we got to Aunt Bett's then they went inside to talk and left me on the porch. I could hear them talking, and when I heard the word "worms" I began to get worried.
Wormseed, Chenopodium ambrosioides, is by far the most obnoxious smelling plant I can ever remember. It is a native of tropical America, but became naturalized throughout the United States pretty quickly. It grows in open fields, waste places and on cultivated land. It is a strong-smelling annual or perennial, depending on the climate, and it grows up to 5 feet tall. It was way taller than I was so I got the full treatment of its nasty odor whenever I was near it. It has a somewhat woody stem at its base, and I can remember the oblong leaves on its stem. Dense spikes of tiny greenish flowers bloom from August through November.
Aunt Bett had already told me some of its history. It was a popular plant in the 1800s when official medicine in North America recognized it as a most effective cure for roundworm and hookworm. For centuries American Indians had known about this remedy, which paralyzes the offending intestinal worms. A strong laxative administered after the wormseed has had its effect drives the parasites right out of the body. Chenopodium oil is the effective substance found in the whole plant, but it is particularly concentrated in the seeds. Luckily, for some years physicians have ceased to recommend wormseed because it can cause harmful side effects. I sure wish Aunt Bett and my mother had known that.
Because of my weight, my Aunt Bett and Mom decided right then and there that I had worms. They came out on the porch with their diagnosis and a tonic in a brown bottle. I had a small fit right in the middle of Aunt Bett's front porch. "I don't got no worms, and you know it, an' no way am I gonna swaller a drop of that stinkin' brown stuff." And I took off running. I got home before my mother and her little brown bottle. I hid in my closet in the attic beside my room. I could hear her coming up the steps, so I went deeper into the attic. She yelled for my Dad and I was hauled out of that closet by my ankles.
I had my speech ready. "Momma, lemme just get to Doc Collins first fore you pour that stinkin' stuff down me, please?" Nothing doing, Daddy held my hands down to my sides and Mom poked that spoon in my mouth. I spit it out. It tasted worse than it smelled. Well, of course I continued to spit it out, but that only made everybody madder and I got another dose. I guess I finally swallowed and my mother put me in the bathtub to rid myself of that foul-smelling tonic that I had spit all over my front.
I suffered no ill effects from the wormseed tonic, and my mother did take me to see Doc Collins in a day or two. He checked me over pretty well, and gave me a clean bill of health. "No worms," he said, "she is just going to be a little lady. If she don't want to eat no meat, don't make her, just give her a spoon full of peanut butter and a bowl of beans, and she'll do fine." I was happy as a lark, until he pulled out the needle and gave me the shot that I had missed at school.
We got in the car to go home. "Hah!" I said to my mother. "You wasted that wormseed for nothin'." But then she proceeded to lecture me about my eating habits and that if I were to continue running up and down the mountain with Aunt Bett I must be strong enough to do it.
"But I'm never swallerin' no more wormseed," I said. "Then you'd better not be getting any worms," she said. For once I kept my mouth shut.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Monocromatico, Reiinhou and Rebecca101 for the use of their photos. The worm is from Public Domain clipart.