(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on May 25, 2010. 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.)
I was five, and I had seen the glow of that big white brand new tooth in my cousin's mouth. She was older, and I could not imagine what she was doing with that giant growth in the place where her usual tooth had been. It looked funny to me, like a mistake of nature, in that small face, not much older and only slightly bigger than mine. It was not long after I had seen her that I discovered, when I chomped into the crisp June apple I found under the tree in my back yard, that something was wrong with my front tooth too. I was in a mild panic, had my cousin bit into an apple? Is that what happened to her old tooth? I was well aware of witches and spells and Snow White and biting into apples. I touched my tooth, and it seemed a little wobbly. I decided I should not eat again. I also decided that I needed to keep my mouth shut, so that Aunt Bett would not notice and dab some magic medicine onto my tooth. I was convinced that magic had been at work in my cousin's mouth.
I don't remember that anybody mentioned my silence, since I was prone to contemplative moods, but they noticed I was not eating. And I did not cough. I was afraid I would cough my tooth out. Granny Ninna noticed and she said, "Why aren't you eating, little 'un? You off your feed, this week?" "Ummhumm," I mumbled, shaking my head up and down without opening my mouth. "You have a sore throat, honey?" "UmmUmmm." When she offered to take a look, I shook my head and left the room. There had been an old man who lived up further in the holler than we did, and I remembered that when he had a horrible toothache Aunt Bett put drops of some concoction of hers right on his tooth. The next day, that tooth fell out. I was keeping my mouth shut tight, I was determined to keep my teeth, and besides, mine didn't hurt.
I vaguely knew that my Great Aunt Bett treated a myriad of ailments with her homemade remedies. I had not yet followed her on her searches for plants up in the mountains that surrounded my home. I just knew that nobody was going to mess with my teeth.
Celandine, Chelidonium majus, is a perennial herb that grows in damp rich soil on the edges of forests, paths, and walls among rocks and bushes. It ranges from northeastern Canada and the United States, south to Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri. It grew very well in our undistrubed mountains. It has branching stems that grow to a little more than two fet high and swell at the nodes. Smooth deeply divided leaves with lobed leaflets spread alternately along the lower stem. It flowers from April through September, the blooms are bright yellow, and when any part of the plant is broken, it exudes an acrid, sticky orange juice with an unpleasant smell. The juice has a strong skin irritating effect, and was used to remove warts and treat such skin diseases as eczema and ringworm by the herbalists and by the medicine men of long ago. Trust me, Aunt Bett never used it on me, but I suspect she used it in much the same way as her ancestors might have done.
Now, fast forward to some time later when I was studying literature in eighth grade. I remember reading somewhere that Queen Elizabeth I had teeth that were euphemistically described as "black pearls". Think of that for a minute, and then think of this: She once avoided a painful tooth extraction by dropping the acrid juice of celandine into the hollow of a decaying tooth and easily removing the tooth with her fingers. I didn't know about Queen Elizabeth I when I first discovered my loose tooth, I didn't even know about loose teeth, But something made me know that I didn't dare let anyone touch my loose tooth. I told myself it wasn't loose, but wouldn't open my mouth to check to see.
Amoung the sources I searched, I found one common legend: The swallows used the juice of the herb to strengthen the eyesight of their fledgings. By extension, the plant's juice was used for eye drops to treat cataracts in humans, but this use was discontinued long ago. Herbalists, following the doctrine of signatures, took the bright orange color of the juice as a divine sign that it was a remedy for jaundice and liver ailments. The juice was also used in folk medicine to remove warts and soften calluses. Some folks also used it to treat skin problems such as pimples and blisters. To my knowledge the plant is no longer used as a remedy for anything, but it is used mainly in the production of a yellow dye for wool.
Now, I didn't know all these bits of information, when I was five and had my first loose tooth. I only knew that something had been used on the old man, and his tooth fell out. I also only knew that my cousin was sporting a huge shiny white thing in the place where her tooth used to be. I wanted none of it, I was very happy with my 5 year old teeth, and planned to keep them with me for the rest of my life. So I refused to open my mouth.
I remember barely opening my mouth to take a small sip of water. If I kept my lips pursed on the rim of the glass, I could almost suck the water in, without disturbing my loosening tooth. Well, nobody had ever explained to me about losing teeth, or baby teeth or permanent ones, so what did I know? I kept my mouth shut. A day or so might have passed, and I guess the grownups were enjoying their days of quiet, so they didn't discover my loose tooth.
One morning I awakened, and when I sent my tongue up front to check on my tooth, I found it alarmingly loose, hanging by a thread it seemed. I thought about crying, but tears had taken me nowhere before, so I sucked them back in and jerked my tongue back to where it was supposed to be. Granny Ninna began to suspect something. "Do you have a loose tooth, little 'un?" she asked. I shook my head before thinking about it. She would be the perfect one to answer my question, and she never poked medicine down me, so I could ask her, I decided. I mumbled something through closed lips, and she said, "You need to talk to me, Sharon, you need to tell me what's wrong."
I took a deep breath and opened my mouth to tell Ninna about my tooth, and just as I did, I sneezed. The tooth went flying right into Ninna's coffee cup.
I learned the first of many facts of life that day, sitting on Ninna's knee, including the fact about the tooth fairy. I got four shiny dimes with that first tooth, so I spent several days seeing if I could work on loosening more teeth. As always, time has a way of taking care of those things, and I soon forgot about loose teeth and the tooth fairy until it happened again. I decided life wasn't so bad after all, as long as I had Granny Ninna and her knee to sit on, and as long as I didn't sneeze.
I often have strange sources for my articles, and this one is no exception. The story of Queen Elizabith I is from a book report I wrote in eighth grade. Of course, I have no memory of the name of the book, or its author, but I surely do have that aged paper with my writing all over it. On its corner there is written an A, and on the side, my teacher's words: A little lengthy. Well, I guess 8 pages on Queen Elizabeth might be a bit lengthy, but it was fun to read it again.
Reader's Digest publication: Magic and Medicine of Plants, 1986, provided information about the herbal usage of celandine.
Photos are from Plant Files. My thanks to these photographers: Dodsky and Zest.
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