The summer of my tenth year was much like any other, cool in the mornings and hot by midday. Aunt Bett and I did our wanderings up and down the mountainside starting at daybreak most of the time, but there were some days when we were looking for a particular plant, we climbed the mountain in the cool of the evening. I especially enjoyed the evening climb because a lot of critters were out looking for food, and we often saw animals that I had not seen before.

We must have been coming up on fall, on the evening of my memory, because the leaves were crunching beneath my feet and the weather was much warmer than it would have been in spring. We stopped for awhile beside the trickling creek that wound its way down the mountain, and I saw some tadpoles whose legs told me they were soon to be frogs. We talked about all we had left to do before winter set in, dried herbs to seal in bottles, dried roots that must be pounded and crushed to a fine powder, and while we were talking I heard the distinct sound of rustling leaves. The air was still and there was not a sound to be heard above the trickle of the creek, but the leaves behind us were very definitely rustling. "It might be a bear, Aunt Bett, do you reckon it's a bear?" I whispered.

"Why no, chile, ain't been no bears here in a long time, it's prob'ly just some little critter nosing around." She whispered, too. I picked up a walking stick just in case. I just knew I could fight a bear if I had to, so I wanted to be prepared. "Aunt Bett, you got a knife with you?" "Nah," she said, "no need for a knife. It's just a little critter out lookin' for his supper." And the leaves kept rustling behind us.

We had a little further to go before we came to a wider area in the creek where there were some beautiful brilliant red flowers blooming. "Oh, Aunt Bett, what're those flowers?" "They're cardinal flowers, and if you just stand still an' watch, you'll see the hummers and the butterflies come a feedin', when they're done, we'll get us some of that cardinal flower."Image

So we sat down on a big warm rock and watched the butterflies and hummingbirds flit and flutter among the cardinal flowers. I could still hear the leaves rustling behind us. Loud rustles. But we got up directly and started digging up a few of the cardinal flowers. Aunt Bett told me that she needed the whole plant because the roots were to be dried as well as the leaves. She had a little hand spade with her and I decided then and there that it had a sharp enough point that if I hit the unknown critter over the head with my walking stick, she could stab it with her hand spade.

The cardinal flower, Lobelia cardenalis, is one of the brightest red flowers I have known. The flowers bloomed from a tall spike, and in groups alongside the trickling creek, it was simply beautiful I thought maybe that my favorite color would now be red, if I could get some of those flowers to grow along the creek that ran behind my playhouse. While we gathered our share of the plant (Aunt Bett would only take what she considered her share, leaving the rest to replenish themselves as nature intended), she told me a little about the cardinal flower. It grows on creek banks and it blooms from July till maybe October. The American Indians used the root tea for stomach aches and the leaf tea was used for colds and croup. Sometimes a poultice of the leaves could be used to stop a noseblead, and sometimes it was used to reduce fevers or to relieve headaches. She said a lot of old folks used it to ease their rheumatism during cold weather. She also told me a little secret about the root of the plant. She said that the Native Americans believed it was a love potion, and placed its finely chopped roots in the foods of their sweethearts. Aunt Bett even smiled when she told me that. She did give me a word of warning, though, and I must pass it along to you. The cardinal plant is poisonous, but it is toxic only if it is taken often and in large quantities. She was always very careful with all dosages.

Today I find that the cardinal flowers contain the alkaloid known as lobeline which is a powerful respiratory stimulant. It is used in treatment of bronchitis and bronchial asthma, but again only under medical supervision.

Well, we got the cardinal plant dug, and all properly packed into Aunt Bett's feedsack. The spade went back into her pocket and I grabbed my walking stick and we started down the mountain. We had not gone very far when we heard the rustling begin behind us. I stopped dead still and turned around. I'd had enough! Whatever it was that was following us was going to be sorry, and I was pretty sure it was Joe Devlin, because he was always acting silly, just like a boy will do. "Come on outta there, Joe Devlin, or you're gonna be sorry. I gotta stick and I'm gonna whop you upside your sorry head!" And the rustling stopped. "That ain't nobody, girl, come on fore it gits to be dark. I don't want to be stuck up on this mountainside when it's pitch black," Aunt Bett said, and started on down the mountain. I was still convinced it was Joe Devlin, so I trailed along behind her. All of a sudden the rustling got louder and I stopped in my tracks and turned around. I saw the ugliest sight I had ever seen coming straight toward me, and it wasn't Joe Devlin. I tried to whack that ugly thing but he was faster than I, so I yelled for Aunt Bett. By the time she got back to me, the fat ugly critter was trying to climb up my walking stick, snarling and hissing and looking at me with beady little eyes. I couldn't get my stick away from him. Aunt Bett took her bag of cardinal flowers and hit him across his head till he finally let go of my stick, and rolled over in a dead faint with his ugly hairless tail curled around him.

"You killed him, Aunt Bett, you killed him with your bag of flowers! He was gonna get us, wasn't he, Aunt Bett, he was gonna kill both of us." "That's just a silly 'possom, chile, and he ain't dead, he's just foolin'. He'll be up and at 'em soon as we get outta his sight. Reckon he was just hungry and we were close to his nest. Nothin' to be 'fraid of now."

Well, that was my encounter with a 'possom, and it wasn't pretty, let me tell you. We went on to prepare the plants for drying and I spent the night with Aunt Bett because I remember just before I fell asleep I said, "Aunt Bett.....thank you for savin' me from that ugly 'possom."

The next spring, Aunt Bett brought me a bucket and in it was a growing plant. The leaves looked vaguely familiar, but it was very unusual for Aunt Bett to come calling with a potted plant. She didn't even have flowers growing in her yard unless I planted them there. But here she came with a potted plant. "I brought this to you, missy, cause I know you liked that red cardinal flower. Now all you have to do is plant it beside the creek here, and make sure it stays well watered, then long 'bout July you'll have yourself a pretty red flower to look at." In all my years, Aunt Bett had never given me an actual planted gift. I didn't know what to say, but I sure did plant the cardinal flower, and it bloomed every summer. She told me it was a special flower, and someday I would know its meaning. I thought that must be a grown up thing that I didn't yet understand.Image

Years later when I had a garden of my own, I remembered the cardinal flower Aunt Bett gave me and I read about its history. Sometime around the 17th century in Constantinople, flowers gained meanings which enabled lovers to convey messages to each other without using words. This language of flowers was introduced to Europe by Lady Montague who was a society poet {1}. She listed more than eight hundred flowers that had special meaning associated with them. To bestow a cardinal flower upon someone was to give them an honor of distinction. I looked up the word distinction: a state or quality of being worthy or different.

I guess Aunt Bett knew me very well, I am not sure I was very worthy, but I am sure I was very different. It was Aunt Bett herself who was worthy.

I learned a lot that year, but mostly I learned to stay away from 'possoms. They sure are ugly creatures, but as my friend Cheryl tells me, sometimes ugly is cute.

{1} Look here for meanings of more flowers:

Other sources for verification:

Photos are from Plant Files with thanks to photographers: Kell, poppysue, and Floridian.