Wild Strawberries and Minnehaha
"By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining big sea waters, stood the wigwam of Nokomis..." From 'Hiawatha' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Sometime around the third or fourth grade I studied the history of Kentucky, including the trails, trials, and tribulations of Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, and Indians. At about the same time I was spending most of my evenings and weekends gathering some very important weeds and wildflowers with my great aunt, who had been trained to make home remedies from plants by her Native American ancestors. While she taught me all she knew about the local flora and fauna, she also taught me about her ancestors. So when the history lesson began, I didn't care a thing about Lewis, Clark, or Daniel Boone, I just wanted to know about the Ojibwa Indians, who were the inspiration for Longfellow's "Hiawatha." I had visions of growing up to be Hiawatha's Minnehaha.
As it happened, I had promised Aunt Bett that I would go with her to gather wild strawberries early on a Saturday morning. I didn't really have to promise her anything because she knew I would follow her anywhere and usually did. It wasn't any big effort to find wild strawberries because they grew just about everywhere, but she was always careful to gather only plants that she thought were not touched by human soil. In other words, those wild strawberries that grew by the paths, the roads, and the outhouses were not what we were looking for. That meant we had to go a little further up on the mountain if we wanted clean wild strawberries.
Wild strawberry, Fragaria vesca, is of the rose family, and if you ever find a patch of them, hold one up close and inhale the subtle aroma of roses. In different areas they might also be known as woodland strawberries or alpine strawberries. They grew on the slopes of the hillsides where I grew up, and they grow wild in my yard even now. They have been around for a long time and evidence from archaeological excavations suggests that they have been consumed by humans since the Stone Age. There are two differences in the wild strawberry and the popular garden variety. Wild strawberries form runners that can spread over a large area, and the garden variety doesn't, it grows in single clumps. The fruit of the wild strawberry is rather small compared to those that we look forward to finding in the grocery or in "U Pick 'Em" strawberry fields.
It is a perennial herb that can be found along roadsides in Canada as well as down through the southeast area of the United States and southwest as far as New Mexico. According to some sources the species is rare and is considered endangered in Indiana. Stems holding a cluster of leaves grow from the runners. Each leaf is borne on a long slender stalk and consists of three toothed leaflets. Shortly after pollination, the white petals of the flowers fall off and the flower receptacle enlarges to form a compound fruit on whose surface tiny one seeded fruitlets are embedded. It looks very much like any strawberry, but it is round and much smaller.
Aunt Bett told me that her ancestors had several purposes for wild strawberries, and I was anxious to learn what they were. The night before we were going to gather some of the plants, I spent a lot of time deciding on appropriate clothing. I was going to be Minnehaha. If you have read Hiawatha, you will remember that Minnehaha was an Indian maiden who loved Hiawatha, a big strong Indian brave. Well, if I had Indian ancestors, I thought I needed to dress like them. I had asked for an Indian outfit for Christmas the year before, and was largely disappointed when it turned out to be a cowgirl outfit complete with a fringed white fake leather skirt and vest, and a hat. I never ever saw an Indian in a hat. And I didn't think they would be running around in white skirts either, but I decided I probably should make do. I decided to wear the skirt, but to my knowledge Indian girls didn't wear vests either. I was in a predicament.
My pillows were stuffed with feathers, most were soft chicken feathers but sometimes if you looked you could find long rooster and turkey feathers, too. I needed those feathers, and there was only one way to get them. I ripped open the seams on my pillow. Pillows then were made by hand from a heavy fabric called mattress ticking. It was usually sewn together on three sides by using the old Singer treadle sewing machine, but the fourth edge was left open until the feathers were stuffed inside, then loosely stiched closed by hand. That was efficient because feathers tend to get flat and often clumped, and it was easy to open the loose end to add or to change the stuffing. The small feathers floated out first, while I dug around with my fingers trying to find the bigger ones. There weren't many big ones, so I decided to rip apart the second pillow. I sewed the biggest feathers around the bottom of my fake leather vest, and I saved the longest red one to stick in a ribbon that I tied around my forehead. I got rid of the hat. My stitching that held each feather left a bit to be desired, but it looked like an Indian vest to me.
I slept on two unstuffed pillows that night, but it didn't bother me since I was excited about being an Indian. Saturday morning I got up and put on my fine feathered costume, grabbed some breakfast from my grandmother and ran on down the road to meet Aunt Bett. I carried the ribbon and the red feather in my hand and my long hair streamed out behind me. My mother was tending my little brother and she had not seen me leave. I fixed the band and feather in my hair while I waited for Aunt Bett to get ready.
As we climbed to the slope where the wild strawberries grew, Aunt Bett explained the process of extracting medicine from them. She dried the leaves and used them as a tea. Strawberry tea was used as a gargle for a sore throat, she said, and the berries were excellent for cooling the liver and for fortifying the blood. I wondered how a body would know if her liver needed to be cooled, but I don't remember that she answered me when I asked. The berries were best consumed when fresh, she said, because dried berries weren't very palatable. As I read about the wild strawberry, I found that is contains tannin, which continues to be used in medical preparations today, but alone it tastes bitter. She also told me that the fresh berries were good for a lot of things, and that they acted as a tonic for whatever might ail me. I thought that was a pretty good idea and told her that since I was now Minnehaha I probably should eat all I could hold. She reckoned that might be a good thing to do, but she told me that Minnehaha had lost the feather from her headband, and that the vest was shedding feathers whenever I took a step. I looked down at my vest and noticed that I might have lost a feather or two, but I wasn't too worried at the time. We gathered the leaves and the berries, and started making our way home.
Walking home, I saw several stray feathers, and got a little alarmed because I didn't think Minnehaha should be going around without her feathers. I collected as many as I could find but I never did find that red rooster feather that had been in my headdress. Actually I didn't find very many, and I lost more the longer I lingered at Aunt Bett's house. My mother was waiting for me as I walked up to my front door. "What happened to your room?" she said. I told her I didn't know what she was talking about. She walked me upstairs to my room and I found it covered with feathers, they were everywhere. They were blowing around in the breeze from the window I had left open. Some were even outside on the roof. And my pillows were as flat as pancakes.
Minnehaha learned to eat wild strawberries that summer. She also learned to stuff pillows, one feather at a time, before she was ever allowed out of her room again. By the way, I still collect feathers, but I rarely stuff my pillows with them.
Photos are from PlantFiles. Thanks to these photographers: Evert, lupine lover, trilian15, and htop.
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