It was a warm day and the heat and humidity were breathtaking. It could be that I was about 9 or 10, just old enough to crave some time to myself, away from the heat and chores that came with daily living in the mountains. Beans had been picked in early morning. I strung them, broke them up, and had them clean and ready for cooking before the clock struck 9. I had cleaned my room, tidied the bathroom, and slipped on shorts and a bare midriff top that had ruffles across the shoulders. Not very enticing when you weigh about 50 pounds, but nevertheless, I was feeling pretty cool. I had slipped down to the lower front where some wild thyme grew among the rocks just above the creekbed. I could not be seen from the house, but I could hear what they said.
"Where'd she go this time?" This was my mother speaking.
"She's just outside gettin' some fresh air, she's done her chores." Granny Ninna always covered for me.
"She doesn't need to be out in the weeds in those shorts. She'll be covered in chiggers and ticks and who knows what else." Mom again.
I made myself as small as possible and stretched out on my stomach right in the middle of Mom's patch of wild thyme. The lemon scent was heaven, and the thyme was so thick I thought I was lying on a cool, lightly textured sheet just off the line. I was happy just watching the ants and listening to the trickle of the water as it made its way out of the mountains to somewhere far away. I was in the shade, not far from the road below me, but I thought I was pretty well hidden. Strange things can be thought by little girls who lie in the cloudy softness of wild thyme, and sometimes those thoughts can lead to dreams that take us far away into places we have never been.
Thymus serpyllum, also known as creeping thyme and lemon thyme, grows wild in fields and woods. Sometimes it can be found along roadsides. It is a plant that is native to Europe, and is naturalized and found from Quebec to Ontario, south to North Carolina, west to Indiana, and occasionally west of the Cascade Range.
It is a perennial herb with creeping woody stems growing up to a foot long. The leaves are opposite, narrow, oblong or oval, and seldom more than a half inch long. Rosy pink to purplish flowers bloom from June to September on erect branches in small heads. The leaves exude a heavenly lemony odor.
Folk healers cite wild thyme as a sedative, antiseptic, diuretic, expectorant and a substance that alleviates intestinal gas. I find that all these attributes have been validated by pharmacologists. It also has an interesting history. In Shakespeare's "A Midsummer-Night's Dream", Oberon refers to the sleeping place of his fairy queen when he says, "I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows." I wish I had known that then, because when my mother stormed down to save me from what she must have thought was bloody death, I could have told her that I was simply sleeping like a fairy queen should sleep when Clifford rudely disturbed me. But I am getting ahead of myself.
In 17th century England wild thyme was a valuable medicinal plant, and those folks knew it as a remedy for nightmares. A family herbal of the time mentioned the plant as a remedy for headache due to inebriation and for nervous disorders. Herbalists coming to America with the settlers saw to it that wild thyme was brought to the New World. The colonists used the herb primarily for women's problems relating to menstruation.
Like its close relative thyme, the plant contains thymol, familiar to most druggists as a strong disinfectant and an active ingredient in antiseptics, mouthwashes and gargles. Pharmacists are acquainted, too with wild thyme's lemony scent in toiletry goods, a discovery made by ancient Athenian men, who made themselves elegant by rubbing their chests with a thyme scented lotion after bathing. Though less pronounced in flavor than the cultivated thyme (T. vulgaris), wild thyme can be substituted for it as a condiment in stews, soups, stuffings and sauces. It can also be used to season poultry and meat dishes. The meat of sheep that graze upon wild thyme is said to be extra flavorful. Its scientific name, serpyllum, reflects the plant's serpentlike creeping habit of growth.
Sometimes I wonder about those days. I don't think I was destined to ever have a dull one. On that day it was so hot I didn't want to be wandering around in the woods because then I would have had to wear long pants to avoid ticks and spiders and wild monsters of the mountains. Wearing shorts, I was limited to my yard. I was dozing, lost in a world of lemony scented clouds, floating as free as a butterfly when it flits from flower to flower, and lying in my fairy queen sleeping place, when I was awakened by cold water splashing all over my semi naked back. I came up fighting, and silly Clifford was my target. He went flying into the creek, behind first, still splashing water all over me. Clifford lived further up the holler than I did, and he was a friend, but he knew better than to ever sneak up on me. I was just about to duck him under forever when my mother came stomping down in all her adult glory and told me that it certainly was not very ladylike to drown Clifford, and if I couldn't behave with company, then I could just come inside for the rest of the afternoon. I told her that Clifford was not company, he was not invited, and it was all his fault. My mother never listened, and I went inside to dry off and to cool down, (her words, not mine).
I don't remember the rest of the day, but I do remember that evening. I had so many chigger bites on my stomach I thought I was going to itch to death. And of all things, my mother dabbed them with her bright red nail polish. She said it was her home remedy for chiggers. My stomach was covered by so many bright red dots, I could have connected them and had a road map to nowhere. It sure put a stop to my bare midriff tops that summer, since it was cold weather before the nail polish finally wore off.
All photos are from Plant Files, thanks to these great photographers: Saya, Dwarfconifer, Imelling and Xenomorf.
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