One of the stories that I was told long ago came from the Cherokee Indians who lived in the mountains long before I lived there. The Cherokees saw plants as their allies. According to a tribal myth, at one time the Indians had gone through a rapid growth in population. To feed the increasing numbers, hunters killed so many animals, the animals feared for their own survival and decided to take matters into their own hands. They caused the humans to become sick with painful and fatal diseases. The plant kingdom intervened. They were friendly to man, and when they realized what the animals were doing they were determined to fight back. Each of the plants, even grasses and moss, agreed to furnish a cure for the diseases, either alone or together. Thus came medicine. The plants furnished the remedy to counteract the evil of the animals. Even seeds had a purpose, and the only problem was in knowing what each plant cured. That is where medicine men come in, and the belief was that if the doctor does not know what medicine to use for a sick man, the spirit of the plant tells him.
That is only one of many myths and legends that I was told when I was a little girl growing up in the southern Appalachian mountains. I remember watching Sputnik cross the sky above me in the late '50s, knowing that some of my older relatives were terrified thinking that it signified the beginning of the "end time". I was never worried about the end time, I was anxious to know what else was going to happen in my lifetime. I prided myself on being a most modern young lady, even in my stained jeans and dyed tee shirts, with twigs and butterflies in my hair. It never occurred to me then that 50 years later I would be placing more value on the things I learned during my childhood in the mountains, than on the things I have learned since I left them.
My mountains were full of rich legend and lore. They were a natural refuge for rebels and individualists, the rugged terrain became home to groups of diverse backgrounds and ethnic origins. Each group brought with it a new tradition that mixed with the other groups to form the region's complex plant lore. Perhaps we still smile at some of the beliefs, because we think we know better, but it is very interesting to study them, and to understand the reasons for them, and to ultimately realize that some of them held truth.
Buckeyes, the large nutlike seeds of horse chestnuts, were prized by both Indians and whites. A buckeye in his pocket, the mountain man believed he would never have rheumatism, but if he ever lost it, he would have a streak of bad luck. Respect for the buckeye and the tree it came from was passed on to the whites by the Osage Indians.
Devil's shoestring was a conjure root of African American doctors, it was used by the Cherokees to make a shampoo. They believed it would make their hair as thick and tough as the plant itself. Another plant the Cherokees held in high esteem was the cedar. Its wood was sacred, said to be stained with the blood of the ancestors. The wood of the cedar was never used for a campfire, it was known as the medicine tree and was burned only on ceremonial occasions when the Cherokees believed its smoke would drive off ghosts and evil spirits.
Another tradition that my ancestors brought from Europe to the mountains was the belief that the moon's phases told the best times to plant different crops. That belief was still in effect when I moved out of the mountains in the '60's, and is in fact still used by my relatives who continue to live there. A few years ago, when I began to grow a vegetable or two in my garden, I did not listen to my neighbors or my friends here in the western part of Kentucky. No, I asked my brother when they should be planted, because you see, he still lives back in my mountains, and he knows these things. And he was right because he plants by the signs of the moon, and that guide has served farmers fairly well for many millennia.
There are other interesting statements that are associated with gardening according to the moon. I probably do not remember all of them, but here are some that I do remember:
*Root crops should be planted during the last two days of a full moon.
*Never plant when the moon is full, because light nights bring light crops.
*The waxing of the moon is the time to do gardening chores.
And here are a few other gems of wisdom that I remember from a long time ago. Working a garden between two little old ladies I learned a lot of important information:
*Corn should be planted when the dogwoods are in bloom.
*Planting peppers when you are mad makes the peppers hotter to the taste. Being the one who was usually mad enough to spit about one thing or another, I became the designated pepper planter.
*Seeds planted on St. Patrick's Day grow better.
*Tomatoes should be planted on Memorial Day.
*Dig sweet potatoes on a dark night so they will be sweeter.
*Never thank a person who gives you seeds or roots, if you do, the plants will not grow.
My family always had a root cellar, and when I moved to Louisville and purchased my first house, I was disappointed because it had none. I remember asking the realtor about root cellars, and he laughed and told me that people didn't use root cellars anymore because no one had gardens. I was lucky enough to get a corner lot, and the house had a basement. I bought a freezer; I had learned to make do. I think I had the last laugh when I was able to freeze many pounds of green beans and other vegetables from my back yard garden that year. The realtor had no idea what he was missing.
There is one other story that I would like to share with you; it is the strawberry legend.
When older folks were very sick and said they could taste strawberries, it was a sure sign death would occur before the sun set in the west. It was believed that when a person was so sick and death was drawing nearer, the soul was beginning to make its journey from east to west to meet with the setting sun at the end of the day. The strawberries were the first fruits of the spring day, and as the sun made its way across the land, so did spring, and the journeyer was able to eat strawberries along the way until he met the setting sun in the west and slipped from life into death with the sun. I loved that story, and somehow, maybe because of it, death holds no fear for me.
I am very sure your ancestors gave you many legends, too, some of them made little sense, but a lot of them bring comfort and smiles. It makes me wonder what we are leaving behind for those who come after us.
"Magic and Medicine of Plants", The Reader's Digest Inc., 1986
Various writings of my ancestors.
Photo credits: The thumbnail image of the moon over the mountain belongs to Ava Eads and the moon alone is that of Victorgardener. Thank you, my friends.
From Plant Files: Buckeye: Jeff_Beck; Devil's shoestring: Jackieshar; the paintings of corn and strawberry are my own.