(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 2, 2009. 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.)
It grew in the old fields that were resting for a year after providing corn for the family. They told me they were resting so that the next time they were planted, the crops would grow bigger and better. They told me I could play in the closest resting field.
So I drew two lines in one corner and marked the area where I would build my house. I only needed two lines because the other two sides were the outer edges of the field. I got rid of the weeds and I used my small hoe to knock the dried clumps of dirt into a million pieces of sand as fine as any on the ocean floor. Then I raked it until it was smooth and spotless. This was going to be my home for the rest of my life. They could plant next year's corn around me. Next I decided I needed a front and side yard, so I used my hoe and my rake and did the same thing all over again. My hair ribbons, the ones whose colors I did not like, were all tied together and onto the fence row, to a small post, then across to the other fence row. They marked the walls of my house. I did the same thing with Ninna's yarn when I marked the edges of my yard. My house and yard were on the far corners of the field, so I didn't think the ribbons or yarn would be visible from my family home. The creek ran behind the back side of my plot, so I knew I would have running water available. I would live with the birds and the rabbits who seemed also to live in my field and I would eat the pears from the old tree in the far corner.
Summer came, and with it the weeds of the field grew and blocked me from the view of the big house. In the evening just before dark and time for me to go back to my family, the lightning bugs flitted all around me. The rabbits skittered back into their homes, and with the lightning bugs leading the way, I walked back home to the big house that sat behind closed doors. I decided I would always have my doors open. This went on for awhile, and with the days growing longer, I added a stump for a table and a smaller one for a chair so I could have a place to sit. I transplanted a few dandelions, some wild bee balm, and another flower or two into my yard, and brought a tin plate and cup to place in the center of my table. I also had a gallon jug I kept filled with water sitting beside my make believe chair. It always had lovely weeds arranged just so, my only decorative accessory, until I lined one imaginary wall with a small metal box filled with my books. With peanut butter and crackers, another jar full of koolaid, last night's leftover cornbread, and pears from the gnarled old tree, the birds and I had lunch every day. Life was good.
As summer approached fall, the white blossomed weed I had been seeing took on a new look. The little green pods that hung from its stems began to turn orange and red. I had been told it was called Chinese Lantern. Physalis alkehengi is a plant native to Asia, and was introduced into gardens in the United States by settlers only a few hundred years ago. In those short years, in some places it has escaped cultivation, and now grows in woodlands, old fields, and other waste lands. It is a perennial with upright branched stems growing to about 2 feet tall. Oval, pointed leaves, 2-3 inches long, are toothed and heavily veined. They grow in pairs. The whitish petals of the June through August blooms drop off as the calyx, or lantern expands. When mature in September, the lantern contains a red fruit resembling a cherry and the lantern itself becomes a pretty scarlet pod.
The plant is also known is the bladder cherry, because the lantern pod resembles a bladder. I would never have thought of that, but Aunt Bett explained to me that the medicine men of her ancestors followed the doctrine of signatures, which meant whatever body part the plant resembled, was the part the plant was supposed to cure. So the Chinese lantern became a remedy for kidney and bladder stones to them. In doing a little etymology research, I find that the plant's botanical name, Physalis, is the Greek word for bladder. In England, the herbalists extolled the plant's virtues as a diuretic. There was also a belief at the time that by eating the cherry like fruits of the plant, you could prevent gout. They believed that prevention only occurred if the cherries were eaten in bunches, and only at each change of the moon. That did not sound very appetizing to me, and much too complicated to remember.
Today, although modern herbalists might occasionally mention Chinese lantern fruits as a diuretic, there is no scientific evidence to validate this use. I do know that some nature hikers in particular do appreciate the fresh fruit, which can also be made into jellies and jams. I don't remember that my much loved medicine woman, Aunt Bett, ever used the plant for any purpose, but I do remember she told me of its history, which brings me back to my wide open field and my home away from home when I was a child.
The days were getting shorter and school was nearly upon me, so my time in my secret home in the field was growing short. Of course I had weekends, but I realized when the rains came and then the snow, I didn't have a roof over my head. I added a roof onto my list of plans for next year. With the dark coming early, I had to come up with a light for my field house. I was not allowed to use matches. Looking at the Chinese lantern pods of red, and watching the lightning bugs as they glowed at dusk, I came up with an idea. I was a great lightning bug catcher. I never harmed them, but I loved to have them crawl on my hands and arms. I also remember my mother picking their glowing bodies out of my messy nest of hair at night. I decided if I could gather enough lightning bugs together and put them one at a time into the red lantern pods of the Chinese lantern, I could have light! I left the pods on the plant, but gently squeezed one at a time to create an opening. The lightning bugs could eat the cherry inside, and they would be so happy in their new home, they would glow forever. I caught enough lightning bugs to fill lantern pods all around my little open home in the corner of the field, they positively glowed red. I left them there all cozy in their homes and wandered my way aimlessly back to the big house.
The problem was, I provided a door for them to enter, but they could not make their way back out of the pod. I tried very hard to bring them back to life, but as it happened the next morning, I was compelled to provide a mass burial for them beneath the old gnarled pear tree in the corner of the field. I marked it with a corn stalk sticking out of the ground, complete with a ribbon bow on top. I guess if the old pear tree is still there, so is my lightning bug burial ground.
All photos are from PlantFiles. Thanks to these photographers for the use of their beautiful photos: Evert for the lovely thumbnail, Kennedyh for the white bloom, Thaumaturgist for the foliage and early lanterns, and our friend whom we miss very much, TuttiFrutti for the final image of the lanterns changing color.