Nobody told fumitory where Virginia stopped and Kentucky began, so how could it know to not cross the line? I had gone with my great Aunt Bett in search of one plant or another. It was May, and school was out, so we had started our walk up the mountain early. Aunt Bett was getting a little older now, and trips that we used to make in a couple of hours took us a little longer. She no longer carried the tools or the burlap sacks that we needed, she only had her walking stick. That walking stick served her well for many years, it was hand carved out of sassafras, she said, but I could never taste the sassafras when I gave it my taste test. Maybe it was too old, and no longer had its scent.
I had the tools in the deep pockets of my overalls, and the burlap sacks were draped over the bandana that I had tied around my waist. I don't remember what else I wore, but when I wore overalls that had no belt, I always had a bandana to help carry whatever I had with me. Sometimes I found a blue feather, or an interesting rock, and then the bandana could be tied into a pouch for carrying them. I was quite inventive with a bandana.
Aunt Bett stopped us in our tracks. "What's this earth smoke doin' here? It's supposed to grow in Virginia, it don't grow on this side. What do you reckon it's doin' over here?" I didn't have any idea what earth smoke was, I thought maybe the mountain was on fire. Aunt Bett knew all about it, though, and I learned a lot that day.
Fumaria officinalis, known more often as fumitory, looked like curls of smoke rising from the ground there on the mountain. I had never noticed it before, probably because it was supposed to stay on its side of the state line according to Aunt Bett. Its gray green leaves had a smoky appearance when I saw it at a distance. The plant is a weed that has traveled from Europe where it was noticed at least as early as Neolithic times. In the Greek/Roman span of time, it was named "kapnos", the Greek word for smoke. According to Pliny, the naturalist from the first century, fumitory was a component in an ointment used to improve eyesight. Pliny's contemporary Dioscorides added that fumitory, when taken internally, worked as a diuretic. According to both authorities at that time, the plant got the name smoke from its sharp tasting juice, which causes the eyes to tear, as they would from smoke.
Fumitory grows on cultivated ground and waste places such as rubbish heaps. I was never sure how it got into the mountains of Kentucky, or Virginia for that matter, but there it was, looking every bit like ghostly haze rising from a slightly level spot on the mountain side. Native to Europe, fumitory has escaped cultivation and now grows wild in scattered locations in North America from Newfoundland south to the Gulf states and inland.
It is an annual herb growing up to 30 inches tall, with slender stems and many limp branches. The gray green leaves are divided into triangular toothed leaflets. At the ends of the branches bloom elongated clusters of small, tubular, pinkish purple, crimson tipped flowers that show throughout the summer months.
In Shakespeare's day the plant was sold in apothecary shops under a Latin name that meant earth smoke, indicating that this plant has retained its name throughout its lengthy history. According to an herb book published at about the same time as Shakespeare's works, an extract of the plant or a syrup made from its juice served to stimulate liver function, rid the body of impurities, and clear up certain skin infections. Some research is being done to see if it contains substances that act on the heart and on blood pressure, but I could find no conclusion to such studies.
Herbalists do recommend fumitory as a diuretic, and for skin eruptions. Studies of the plant cast doubt on its effectiveness as a diuretic, but show that it may act to alleviate skin eruptions, since the plant contains antibiotic substances. Folk stories still credit fumitory with a special power to confer long life. I don't remember that Aunt Bett used it for anything, probably because it wasn't supposed to grow on Kentucky's side of the mountain and she was not very familiar with it.
I barely remember fumitory myself, and remember it only as Aunt Bett's earth smoke. When I saw the word written recently in an article about folklore during Shakespeare's time, I had another of those memory moments, and remembered Aunt Bett, waving her cane, and saying: "That earth smoke ain't supposed to grow on our side of the mountain!"
And I just want you to know, her cane is still on my side of the mountain.
The first photo is from Wikipedia's Public Domain, the second two are from Plant Files and are the work of Trillian15 and Ursula. The last photo is Aunt Bett's walking stick, here at my side of the mountain.
Verification source: Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest, Inc. New York, 1986
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