Everyone needs privacy, even little girls, and I had found the perfect spot. My mother planted a flower garden at the side of the house, just outside my bedroom window. Of course it was on a hillside, with a nice 45 degree slant that overlooked the road below. It seemed that all flower gardens were on hillsides in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. Looking out my window, I saw first the black walnut tree that thundered mightily throughout the fall, when its walnuts bounced around on the tin roof over my head. Then there were rosebushes, a few daylilies, bee balm and hollyhocks growing there as well, but a bit past the edges of the flower garden, a great big patch of ajuga grew. It was only there for ground cover, but about once or twice a year Aunt Bett would gather the plant and use it for the medicines she made.Image

In front of the ground cover, and about 10 feet above the road, there was a hedge row, thick and very dark green. The road curved at that point, and wound its way on up the holler away from my house, but not away from my property. My dog, Pepper and I had worn a path beside the hedge row and we walked that path daily until it ran into scrub brush out of sight of my house. The ajuga spread almost as far. I had collected an arsenal of walnuts, and stashed them in various places beneath the hedge row, just in case I needed weapons when enemies approached. The softness of the ajuga added to the silence of my footsteps. I was the self appointed guardian of my castle. Actually I read too many Nancy Drew books.

I will tell you first about the properties of ajuga, and then I will continue my spy story, because I cannot tell one without the other. Ajuga reptans is also known as bugleweed, and is related to the mint family. It came to us with our ancestors from England where it had been used as a wound herb for many centuries. It is a perennial that flowers from the end of April to the beginning of July, with tapering flower stalks that are about 6 to 8 inches tall. Like most mints, it has a square stem. It has long root runners, sometimes a couple of feet long, that die out as winter approaches. But at every point where the leaf pairs and the rootlets are formed, there is a dormant plant waiting to develop fully in the spring. The seeds of the plant don't always ripen, but it propogates itself with its creeping runners. Its foliage is dark green throughout the summer and turns a reddish purple through the fall. The little flowers are wonderful, a rich blue and the lower lip of each one sticks out like a pout.

Nicholas Culpeper, (1616 -1654) an English botanist, herbalist, physician and astrologer, published two books before his death: "The English Physician" and "Complete Herbal". They both contain a rich store of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge. This is what Culpeper had to say about ajuga: "if the virtues of it make you fall in love with it (as they will if you be wise) keep a syrup of it to take inwardly, and an ointment and plaster of it to use outwardly, always by you. The decoction of the leaves and flowers in wine dissolveth the congealed blood in those that are bruised inwardly by a fall or otherwise and is very effectual for any inward wounds, thrusts or stabs in the body or bowels. It is wonderful in curing all ulcers and sores, if the leaves, bruised and applied or their juice be used to wash and bathe the place and the same made into lotion and some honey and gum added, cureth the worse sores. It helpeth those that have broken any bone, or have any member out of joint. An ointment made with the leaves of Bugle, Scabious and Sanicle bruised and boiled in hog's lard until the herbs be dry and then strained into a pot for such occasions as shall require, it is so efficacious for all sorts of hurts in the body that none should be without it." {1}

Somehow Aunt Bett had a copy of Culpeper's book "Complete Herbal". I have no idea where she got it, but along with her 1894 edition of "Gray's Anatomy" and the knowledge that was handed down through her ancestors, there were very few things that she did not know about herbal remedies. I don't know what happened to her copy of Culpeper's book, but I do have her copy of the Gray's. Even more important to me are the notes she took, placed within the pages of the book.Image

I am not sure where the Ajuga got its name, because resources are unclear. It is a Latin name, probably corrupted from Abija, which was derived also from the Latin word abigo which means to drive away, because the plant was thought to drive away various forms of disease. From early days, it was thought to possess great curative powers. Older references might call it abija, ajuga, abuga and also the common English name of Bugle. I mention all this because it leads me to my spy story.

During the time that I was Aunt Bett's "assistant medicine woman", self proclaimed though it might be, I loved to read. I climbed into the attic of my Great Gramma Laurie's house and spent hours reading her collection of old Collier magazines. I searched through my granddad's collection of National Geographics in his "basement" (a room partially underground adjacent to the cellar) until the spiders built webs in my hair. And of course I had my own collection of Nancy Drew mysteries. When I was out alone in the ajuga, surrounded by the hedgerow, walnut tree, and Mom's flowers I would often read aloud to Pepper and the birds. One time I asked Aunt Bett if I could borrow one of her medicine books just for the night. I told her I wanted to study it, and I told her that I would return it when I brought her more bugleweed the next day. She let me borrow it. Mom was in the house with my little brother, Granny Ninna was visiting her daughter in Lexington, and Dad was working in his shop. Pepper and I had our hideout all to ourselves.

I decided to read the medical book aloud to Pepper, she listened with her eyes closed. I stumbled over the old English and Latin words trying to pronounce them with an English accent that I had heard on the newsreels when I was taken to see a movie occasionally on a Saturday afternoon. I particularly remember reading a recipe for a remedy that called for "an abuga decoction of the leaves and flowers in wine that dissolveth the congealed blood..." I thought that sounded appropriately mysterious and exciting, especially the word "abuga" so I repeated it and repeated it and repeated it in my best English accent. I heard the distinct sound of male giggles coming from the road down below. Pepper continued to listen with her eyes closed. I crawled, slithered on my belly, toward the hedgerow where my stash of walnuts was hidden. By lying flat on the bugleweed, I could see through the bottom branches of the trunks of hedge, but I could not be seen from below. I could see the top of Will Baxter's greasy head. Will Baxter lived up the holler a ways, and as far as I was concerned he was about as necessary as a box of rocks in a gravel pit. I had to walk to school with him on days when he bothered to attend, and he absolutely did not have a brain beneath that greasy head of hair. I picked up a walnut in each hand, and carefully raised up on my knees. I knew he couldn't see me because I was behind the hedgerow. He was still giggling and saying "dissolveth" with every giggle. Those walnuts flew out of my hands faster than he could come up with another giggle, and dead on I hit him in the eye with one walnut and in the nose with the other. Blood flew, Will Baxter went running one way and I went running the other, straight down the holler to Aunt Bett's house, Pepper was finally awake enough to follow.

I told Aunt Bett what I had done and told her the exact words I had been reading, the ones Will had made fun of. She said, "Now don't you worry none, you shouldn't have done it, but then Will hadn't ought to make fun of your readin' neither. I bet it won't be too long fore his ma drags his sorry self down here to get something for that eye of his, if you hit him like you said you did."

She was right, and it wasn't long before I heard footsteps on Aunt Bett's front porch. Will's mother had a grip on him and she wasn't about to turn loose. "Bettie Ann," she said, "Will here's done run smack into a tree limb and done got his nose busted and his eye bruised good. I reckon I be needin' some of that salve of yours fore it gits any worse." Whoosh! I didn't realize I had been holding my breath, Will hadn't told on me, so I reckon I wouldn't tell on Will.Image

Aunt Bett brought out some bugleweed salve and started to put it on Will's nose and eye. She said, "Now Will, this here salve it'll dissolveth all the bruisin' round yore eye, and then it'll dissolveth all that blood that done spread when you come up against that tree limb. I reckon it'll dissolveth 'bout all your problems. Might be good if you watch out for them tree limbs, though, cause the next one might not dissolveth so easy. This here be abuga salve, Will, a good word for you to know if you ever need it agin."

Aunt Bett gave him the salve we had made earlier in the spring from the bugleweed.

Will Baxter never mentioned the incident to me. I promised Aunt Bett that I would never again throw walnuts, even though I was pretty proud of my aim at the time. It is a good thing she didn't say anything about throwing persimmons or pawpaws.

{1} http://www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/frameset.html


Other information was found in my family notes and records.

All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Happenstance for the thumbnail, KevinMc for the second and last images, and Baa for the cluster image.

(Editor's Note: This article was published on April 20, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)