(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 5, 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.)
I had an interesting childhood, but I wonder now how my mother ever survived. There is sometimes a small gap of misunderstanding between a child's question and the answers she receives. My dog, Pepper, was going to have puppies. She crept under the floor of the back porch and dug out a rounded cup like area where she lay sleeping while she waited for their birth. I followed her under the floor, I might have been 5 or 6 at the time. When my mother finally found me I said: "But, Mom, why was Pepper digging under the porch floor? She has a good bed right up on the porch." My mom said: "She is digging the nest for her puppies." I translated that to mean that Pepper would find her puppies when she dug deep enough into the ground.
Well. I did what I thought I should be doing. I started digging holes all over the back yard, I wanted to help Pepper find her puppies. That lasted no more than a morning because my mother heard the sound of my shovel hitting rock and that was the end of my search for puppies. That did not end my imagination.
There was a cup flower, Aunt Bett's name for it, that grew in the mountains. It was very tall and looked much like a small sunflower. At separate times we harvested the root and then we dried the leaves, but we always left the stalk with the flower intact if we harvested while it was blooming. The roots were very long and were difficult to dig up, but I could reach the leaves and I gathered them for Aunt Bett's bag. The plant was anywhere from 3 to 8 feet tall, a long way over my head, but sometimes the stalk would break and I would get a good look at the flower itself. The top two leaves just under the bloom formed a cup shape where they joined the stalk. Most of the time in the early morning or after a rain, those cups were filled with water. Sometimes I would see a hummingbird slurping water right out of the leaf cup. Aunt Bett told me that it was nature's way of making sure the little critters always had enough to drink.
The cup flower, (Silphium perfoliatum) blooms from July till September in Kentucky. It is a great plant for background in gardens, but it does have a long root that meanders around all over the place. It is a drought resistant plant and the long root tail helps in its survival because it travels to great lengths seeking water. Along with being a good background plant, it is also good for the wildlife in your garden. It attracts songbirds, butterflies, and of course it is there for the hummingbirds.
Aunt Bett told me that the Native Americans used tea from the roots for lung problems, back or chest pain, ulcers and to treat fevers. They also dried both root and leaf and inhaled the smoke from them to cure head colds and rheumatism. To my knowedge Aunt Bett only added it to other medicinal plants when she was treating a fever or a cold. I doubt that it really worked, but since she kept it on hand, somebody must have thought it did. Today the cup plant still grows, and I see it frequently in empty fields and on hillsides. Medicinally it is no longer used, and has never been tested for its toxicity. Still, it is a very pretty plant, and it does provide a water source for the little flying critters.
We had gathered it a few times and I had watched butterflies and birds drink from its cup quite often. I came home with an idea that had sprung from my thoughts about the cup formation. I decided that all flowers should have this cup shape, so that no butterflies or birds would ever go thirsty.
My Granny Ninna saved all her loose twine or heavy string in a ball, and I asked her if I could borrow it. Ninna knew I had a serious project in the making, and she rarely questioned my plans, so she gave me the heavy ball of saved twine. I went to the back yard with twine and some scissors. It must have been in late summer because I can only remember that there were zinnias and hibiscus blooming in my mother's flower garden. They did not have cupped leaves, but I knew a way to solve that problem. I took the ball of twine and held the petals of the first zinnia upward so that they formed a cup shape. I wrapped the twine round and round the zinnia petals to hold them up. I was through with all the zinnias and most of the blooms on the hibiscus when my mother came to the back yard. I had yet to start on the leaves of either plant, but they were also a part of my plan.
My mother saw the cupped blooms and I thought she was going to swoon. "Lawd have mercy, Sharon, what have you done to my flowers!", said my mother. She only called me Sharon when she was upset with me, which was most of the time. I explained to her that I was making the flowers into cups so that the butterflies and the birds could get a drink of water. My mother surely was a tolerant woman. I only had to remove all the twine and rewrap it on Ninna's ball. Before the week was over, my mother had purchased a bird bath for her garden, and my job was to keep it filled with water. I thought that was a pretty fair exchange.
I am glad I was not sent to my room for the rest of my life.
Photographs are from Plant Files. The cup plant photographers are mgarr, creekwalker and mystic. Bigcityal photographed the zinnia. Thank you for the excellent photography.