My Great Aunt Bett was known as the Medicine Woman in the mountains of eastern Kentucky where I grew up. She was indeed a formidable woman, even to me, since she could drape that stinking asphidity bag around my neck and get by with it. This is the story of our trek up the mountains on our search for the new shoots of poke, and of all the magic held secretly within the pokeweed plant.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 27, 2008. 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.)
One of my earliest memories is sitting on the back porch listening to my mother talking with her Aunt Bett about the war in the Pacific while they were breaking green beans straight out of the garden. It was during WWII and I was a 2 or 3 year old who had never seen her daddy, since he was serving our country in the Philippines. But the war was no concern of mine, I was much more interested in the pop of the green beans when they broke, the curly green strings that came from the part that was pulled away from the bean, and the talk that went on between my mother and Great Aunt Bett.
There weren't many men in my life during that time. Most of them were with my dad in various places in Europe fighting a war I knew nothing about. Since I was the only grandchild in the family, evesdropping on my elders was an every day pasttime. Aunt Bett was not a typical great aunt. First of all she did not like children. She had none of her own and she pretended I was not there, but we spent a lot of time on that back porch, them talking to the rhythm of beans breaking and June bugs buzzing and me with ears wide open. Years passed, my Dad came home, and Aunt Bett grew older. She was a widow, and she had no job, so she lived off all the treasures of her small farm and the surrounding mountains. I could tell that my mother stood in awe of Aunt Bett. Not so for me; frankly, she scared me to death!
We gardened it seemed from daylight till dark. It was my job to follow along after Aunt Bett and drop two seeds into each hole that she dug. That was not a problem, the problem was the stinking asphidity bag that she draped around my neck before we left the house. It was to ward off evil she said, and to keep the bees from stinging. I wasn't a bit afraid of a little evil or a few bees, but I was surely afraid of Aunt Bett, so I wore the ugly stinking piece of jewelry. Maybe it even worked because I lived to tell the story of gathering poke from the mountaintop.
Pokeweed, (Phytolacca americana) Aunt Bett told me, was a magic plant. It was so magic that it had to be gathered in the early spring just as the sun rose over the mountaintop while the plant was covered with dew. That alone was enough to install a little more dread into my 8 year old heart, because not only was I the child anointed with the task of following along behind her, but we had to start our trek up the mountainside before daylight. Fears aside, off we went in a hurry to beat the rising sun, Aunt Bett carrying a walking stick, and me trudging along behind with an armload of brown paper sacks and wearing the stinking asphidity bag. I might as well tell you now that my magic bag was a simple one made of muslin. I was told to never open it because it would let the power out, and being terrified of bringing the wrath of Aunt Bett down on my head, I never opened the thing. It was not very heavy, but it was very lumpy. I have tried often to think of what might have been inside the mysterious little bag, because it was very small, certainly not much bigger than a silver dollar. It was also lumpy, and smelled of rotten leaves, garlic, probably rosemary, maybe onion, and mint. The combination mixed with sweat and dirt brought tears to my eyes. Those are my grown up thoughts, my little girl thoughts could only recognize the mystery surrounding the bag. After wearing it a few times, it became greasy with sweat, the garlic smashed, and it literally began to ooze. It left its odor on my neck, chest, hands, face, hair and I was sure I could be smelled a mile away.
We got to the mountain top on time, and met the sun as it popped up over the edge of the world. And there, directly in its beam, was the light green pokeweed plant. To my surprise, pokeweeddidn't look very scary. We gathered the young poke and I was directed to only pick the smallest leaves; into the brown paper sack the leaves went and Aunt Bet pulled from the pocket of her long skirt a big burlap bag into which she dropped the smaller paper sacks as they were filled and after the tops had been folded down twice and clipped with a clothespin.
The trek back down the mountainside was always spent with Aunt Bett giving advice, and me trying not to listen. I do remember the directions she gave for cooking pokeweed and those directions will be included at the end of this article. She also told me that I must never eat any part of the pokeweed except those very young leaves because if I did, I would surely die. The stinking asphidity bag would protect me from all harm, though, as long as I wore it while searching for young leaves, but even it could not protect me if I ate any part of the forbidden plant. Time passed and so did the summer days. Early in the summer we again made the early morning trek up the mountain, but this time we were only going to check the growth and the location of the pokeweed so we did not carry multiple paper bags, but again I had to wear the stinking asphidity bag around my neck. Aunt Bett was convinced that evil lurked behind every tree.
Surprisingly, though the poke had grown, it did not look menacing to me, but it did look interesting. It was in bloom, and the tiny white clusters of flowers had a green center with a pink tint outside. Aunt Bett told me that by this time every part of the poke plant was poison. The stalk was beginning to turn red, and a little later the flowers turned into dark red berries. She told me that the berries could be eaten by birds with no harm to them, but the only thing humans could do with the berries was to turn them into dye. So on the next late summer trip, we gathered poke berries and Aunt Bett used them to turn white muslin feed sacks into a dazzling shade of red. After many washings of the feed sacks to wash away the poison, some of the dyed muslin was made into bright red blouses for me.
Early fall came, and again Aunt Bett silently took me up the mountainside. She rarely said a word on the trip up, perhaps because it used up extra energy that she did not have. In fall I noticed that nature takes on a different look and smell. On those fall trips, Aunt Bett again carried the burlap sack, I carried a heavy pickaxe and wore the dreaded asphidity bag, which by this time not only reeked but actually had taken on a life of its own. Nasty, that thing was. On this, the last trip of the season she assured me, we were going to harvest the root of the pokeweed. We took turns with the pickaxe. And more turns. And even more. The pokeweed root was surely growing all the way through the mountain and on to China, I thought. If I thought the asphidity was stinking on the way up the mountain, it was positively reeking with blood, sweat and tears on the way down.
Aunt Bett carried the chopped up pieces of root, and I had gathered the last of the berries, which she told me were mine to do with what I wanted, but I had to promise not to eat them. That proved to be an easy promise to make, since I had no desire to meet with an early demise. (By this time I had read Sleeping Beauty and I was a firm believer in the power of poisoned fruit.)
I was interested in what she had planned for the pokeweed root, the magical plant had taken over my summer, so I might as well learn everything about it. Slowly she revealed her secrets:
"Treat the pokeweed plant with respect," she said, "poke root is best dug up after the plant has started dying back for the winter. One small root will be enough to last this family long after I'm gone. First you must wash the root, then chop it into small pieces, enough to fill up a jar. Then you must add enough 100 proof alcohol to cover the roots." Knowing now, what I didn't know then, I am thinking...."Whewwww!" Aunt Bett continued: "Set it in a corner and forget it for a moon and a half (about 6 weeks), then strain out the roots and bury them behind the smoke house. The syrup will taste very light (mild) but don't be fooled. There's magic in that syrup. It will knock you flat in a heartbeat. What I have made for all of us is a medicine that must be taken no more than 1 drop at a time, twicet a day. It will keep us from getting colds and strep throat and lung ailments. Store it away now and don't forget anything I have told you."
While the syrup was curing, I made use of the poke berries. With those magic berries in my hands, I became an amazing artist; I drew red designs on every large rock I could find, I painted designs on the white bark of the sycamores that grew along the riverbank near my home. And oh my goodness, I became the very first painter of my own body parts. A real tattoo artist, I was. I only painted the parts that my mom could not see, of course, but I dearly remember the amazing floral design around my belly button. The only problem with that was that pokeberry juice did not wash off very easily and I spent some uneasy moments changing clothes that fall. I never knew when my mother might decide to come uninvited into my room.
Aunt Bett also taught me to make a salve from the poke root. Instead of the alcohol, we added oils to the poke root, leaving it standing until it became a mush. When the mush was strained and we saved the heavy liquid, we melted into it some beeswax, and it became a balm or a salve. I also remember that she saved some of the poke oil itself and used it to rub on mosquito bites, bruises, lumps, bumps and boils. I remember as well that it always cured whatever ailed me.
Indeed the pokeweed was a magic plant. I still have a great respect for it. I was fortunate enough to remember most of what Aunt Bett taught me, and was lucky enough to be given some of her hand written recipes and directions upon her death in the early 70's at the age of 85+. Some of her written comments including her own spelling are in quotations above. We had many adventures, Aunt Bett and I, and I balked at every one of them. But oh, the memories that we made! Maybe next time I will tell you of our great search for the illusive Mouse's Ear, or the secret that lies within the resin of a pine tree, or the satisfying experience of gnawing on a sassafras twig. I might even share with you the exact location of the grave in which I buried that stinking asphidity bag. No doubt it is still there.
Here is Aunt Bet's recipe for Poke Sallit, so spelled because poke is not to be eaten in a fresh salad, but should only be eaten as the result of multiple fresh water boilings, at that time it becomes sallit, or sallet:
Pick and wash big bag of poke pickings.
Bring to a fast boil for 20 minutes.
Drain and rinse with cold water, bring to a boil again starting with clean cold water and boil again for 20 minutes.
For the third time, start again with fresh cold from the well water, and boil again for another 20 minutes.
This boils the evil out of the pokeweed and it will not poison you.
You can add bacon grease to thrice cooked poke, and you can add onions.
Eat with hot cornpone and cold butter.
Pokeweed is considered highly toxic. My article is simply a story from my childhood, and I do not encourage you to ever eat pokeweed. You might want to remember that it is a fun dye, of course.
Special thanks to Gloria Cole (gloria125) for encouraging me to write about my Aunt Bett.
Thanks to Carol Peddle, (Starzz), for enhancing the 108 year old photo, taken when Aunt Bett was about 10 years old.
Photo credits belong to DG's own Scutler, to Jennifer Saylor and to the author. In some instances the same photo appeared on more than one website and credit was sought, but the photographer was unknown. Credit would certainly be given if I could find the illusive photographer.
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.