How likely is it that someone from the mountains of southeast Kentucky would find a plant from her childhood growing in the mountainous beauty of Alaska? The name was different more than a thousand miles from Kentucky, but the plant looked just the same.
"Home again, home again, jiggity jig..." from an old Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme
The thing about nursery rhymes is they were used as a seemingly innocent vehicle to quickly spread subversive messages. Quite often they were parodies of the royal and political events and wealthy people of the day. It was a vital element when commoners wanted to comment, and were afraid of the punishment such comment could bring. "Off with his head" was an often heard outcry. However, the phrase I used above was one that I truly felt when I finally, after 12 hours, stepped off the plane that brought me back to Kentucky after my trip to Alaska last summer. It was a most glorious trip, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute, but I had learned so much, and part of that learning included new names for old things. I was in a hurry to compare what I learned with what I knew.
We called it silverweed when I was growing up in southeast Kentucky, and the name fit the plant very well, because it was a low growing silvery foliaged plant. I found it in Alaska growing from cracks in rocks and when I said, "Oh you have silverweed!" my friend and hostess said, "That's potentilla, and it is a plant that serves well as food." I thought I had misremembered, which at my age is not so difficult, so I didn't respond to her correction. But I had never heard of it used as a food no matter what it was called.
Potentilla anserina was reclassified into the resurrected genus Argentina by researchers during the 1990s. Boiled, roasted, or raw, silverweed's starchy rootstock has served as food for North American Indians, Eskimos, and northern Europeans for many years. At times the rootstock , which is said to taste like parsnips, sweet potatoes or chestnuts, has kept regional populations alive when nothing else was available to eat. It is also food for many wildlife species. The leaves are evidently a favorite of geese, because another common name goosewort, means "goose plant", and the species name anserina is Latin for "of or pertaining to geese."
I heard this many times: "You got a sore throat, honey girl? Well now here is a real good drink that'll make you well real quick. Gargle it first, throw your head right back and just gargle away. Then you can take a great big sip of this same tea, and you'll be good as new in no time." These words float in my memories, and I don't remember if they came from my grandmother Ninna or my great Aunt Bett, but I followed their directions and after many wasted efforts I finally learned to gargle loud and clear. I was such a loud, messy gargler, they wrapped a towel around my neck so that I wouldn't have to change clothes after every gargle.
As it happened, those gargles helped until I was 8 and had to have a tonsillectomy, and I don't remember gargling ever again. I wonder if I would still require a towel draped around my neck. The gargle that I was served in my favorite Raggedy Ann cup was made from dried silverweed. Once the plant was dried, it was steeped in hot water, strained, and served with fresh honey mixed into the tea. I don't remember that it had much flavor, but I was always happy to taste anything that was mixed with honey. I still am.
Silverweed is native to Eurasia, but can be found in various places in North America growing in damp ground and along streamsides. It is a ground hugging perennial that grows about a foot tall. It has runners that can be as long as 6 feet, and those runners link new plants bearing tufts of leaves that are pinnately divided into toothed leaflets with silvery undersides. Each tuft bears a single five-petaled, bright golden yellow flower in June through August, atop a 2- to 12- inch long leafless stalk. Above all else, I remember that the flowers close at night and on cloudy days.
Silverweed contains much tannin, which is an astringent and may account for its use as a gargle and mouthwash. There doesn't seem to be much scientific data available to validate any other uses, but it does have a bit of an interesting history, as most plants do. At one time the dried plant was put in shoes to absorb sweat, and in other cultures it was used to ward off witches and evil spirits. Since that is the case, I have no doubt it made its way into one of those dastardly asphidity bags that I was talked into wearing on my treks up into the mountains. If I were to ever duplicate the contents of the asphidity bags that I sometimes mention with something akin to kindness, I would have to go by smell alone. I was told they warded off evil, and were my protection, so it stood to reason mine was magic. I was always afraid of being turned into a bug or a toad or heaven forbid, a slimy snail, so I was very careful that I did not open the thing up and look inside. It must have worked, because even though I never did grow much, I don't look like either of those dreaded creatures. But goodness, the smell of one of those tiny bags just increased in intensity with every day that went by. I buried most of mine at one time or other, and if I ever had the opportunity to dig them up again, I could find them by their scent alone.
So I had to go to Alaska to visit one of my childhood plants again. It grows more rampantly there, and seems to thrive on the cold tundra conditions. I haven't seen it very much here in western Kentucky, but then I haven't really looked. It took a day long flight and several days of continuous daylight before I spotted it, and then in such an unlikely place, growing in the cracks of a rock and sporting an entirely unfamiliar name. But silverweed is silverweed, no matter what it is called.
I can still remember its taste in the honey flavored tea.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Xenomorf, Baa, and Kennedyh.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.