Appalachian Thursday – Legend of the Dogwood

dogwoodI’ve always loved to bring wildflowers in the house. As kids we’d pick daffodils and forsythia, then wild azalea and lilacs, then daisies and black-eyed Susans. I even got in trouble for breaking off a branch from my mother’s redbud tree!

But we never cut dogwood. It’s a holy flower–especially around Easter.

I worked the legend of the dogwood into my upcoming novel, When Silence Sings. Here’s a short excerpt for you on this week after Easter. Colman Harpe is an itinerant preacher tasked with sharing the Gospel with a feuding clan. He finds his way through stories like this one . . .

“Dogwood tea,” a woman said, leaping to her feet and touching a flowery branch. She spoke to the woman to her right. “Ivy says it’s good for easing sore muscles if you use it externally. But taken by mouth, it can break a fever. I just remembered. Try that for Avery next time he takes a fever.” She snapped off a flower and resumed her seat, examining the creamy petals.

“Can I see that?” Colman asked while seeing a way out of the conversation about Ivy.

She nodded and handed him the flower. He looked at it closely, remembering what his grandmother told him when he was a boy. “I guess you all know the legend of the dogwood?”

All eyes turned to him with expectant looks. He supposed at least some of them knew the legend but didn’t want to get in the way of hearing a good story. He smiled.

“Dogwood trees used to grow big as oaks,” he began. As a matter of fact, they were so big and strong and had such good wood, the Romans used one to make the cross they crucified Jesus on.” The ladies were still now, almost reverent in their attention. “But after His resurrection, Jesus took pity on the tree and said that never again would it be used for such a purpose. From that day to this, dogwoods don’t get much bigger than this one here.” He stood and patted the trunk he could easily circle with both hands. “And this”—he held up the flower—“is shaped like a cross with two short petals and two long. And at the tip of each petal is a nail scar.” He showed them the crimped pink-stained petals. “While in the center rests a crown of thorns. I guess, if we take the time to look around, reminders of God’s gifts and graces are all around us, just waiting for someone to notice them.”

A gentle breeze wafted through the trees and set the branches of the dogwood to stirring as if in approval. Colman looked around the group and saw smiles softening faces that likely saw more than their share of grief as the women struggled to raise families and support their husbands in this hardscrabble mountain land.

Nell dimpled at him. “That’s the nicest sermon I’ve heard from a preacher in a long time.”

Colman felt a surge of pride and noticed Nell had soft brown eyes to go with her golden hair. He looked through the branches of the tree to the cloud-dotted sky beyond and thought maybe it was the nicest sermon he’d preached ever.

Appalachian Thursday – Spring Tonics

GE DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s been a roller coaster leading up to the first few days of spring. We’ve had temperatures in the 70s and then . . . snow. Back and forth, spring has been a terrible tease this year.

Of course, it’s not as bad as when folks had to wait for spring to eat anything that resembled a fresh vegetable. Those were the days when country folks indulged in their favorite spring tonics.

My great-grandmother would send Dad out to gather young mullein leaves each spring when he was a boy. She dried them in the oven, then crumbled them. She smoked two pipes full and that was her spring tonic. I don’t know if she enjoyed it, or if it was more of a medicine, but it allegedly perked her up.

I think most of us are in need of a spring tonic now and again. The idea is to purify the blood and enliven the body after a long winter of being cooped up inside. Some popular spring greens for tonics included dandelion, poke, and ramps. Sassafras and spice bush were used to make teas.

And then there was the classic Appalachian spring tonic–Sulphur and molasses. Each has definite health properties, although I wonder if the main purpose of the molasses was to help get the Sulphur down. Regardless of whether it got the blood moving, it would definitely cause other systems to “move.”

As for me . . . I think I’ll stick to a nice, green salad and a long walk in the sunshine.

Love Like a Casserole

toddyIt’s day 19 of this ridiculous cold that has apparently morphed into something else. The paperwork from the urgent care clinic says, “Acute upper respiratory infection, unspecified.” I have antibiotics.

I think the doctor may have given them to me to appease me, but I don’t care. I’ll take lamp oil in sugar at this point. Anything to breathe through my nose again.

And yes, I’ve given whatever I have to my husband who is still being sweet to me anyway.

And he’s not the only one.

It’s just a cold. I know folks who are SO much sicker. Who have MUCH harder illnesses to deal with. And yet . . .

My friend Suzi brought me a casserole. She heard me hacking and snorting through Bible study last week and told me it would make her ever-so-happy if she could bring me a casserole she’d already made up, not knowing who it was for.

I agreed, because I’m not an idiot.

She brought us a scrumptious chicken and pasta casserole with mushrooms and zucchini. But that’s not all. There was also a chopped, Greek salad, and the makings for hot toddies. Honey, whiskey, lemons. Throat-soothing, sinus-opening, sleep-inducing hot toddies.


This is what love looks like. Pyrex dishes full of bubbling, cheesy pasta and chicken. Vitamin-packed salads. And a small bottle of whiskey from a bonafide church lady.

Love is seeing a need and meeting it without being asked. It’s stopping by someone else’s house after a long day at work and making sure people you care about are well fed if nothing else.

Thanks Suzi. I love you, too. And that’s not just the whiskey talking.

Appalachian Thursday–Home Remedies

HelvetiaI’ve been doing battle with an awful, lingering cold. I pretended I was getting better for ten days, then succumbed and spent a day laying around drinking lots of tea and taking cold remedies in hopes of shaking it.

Which got me thinking about what folks did in the days before Tylenol Cold and Mucinex.

I have a handy little book titled “Oppis Guet’s Vo Helvetia” that’s a collection of recipes and household hints from the Swiss village of Helvetia in West Virginia. There are several recipes for cold cures there including:

  1. Onion Syrup – Good for croups and colds. Slice onions very thing and layer in a pan with sugar. Sit the pan in a warm oven with the door open and sweat syrup out of the onions. Take it by the teaspoon.
  2. Horehound Candy – For coughs. Boil one handful of fresh horehound leaves in water and strain. To each pint of tea, had a half pound of brown sugar, and boil on the stove until it reaches the hard ball stage. Pour into a greased pan and cut into squares once it’s almost cool.
  3. Cure-All – (This is my favorite.) Add a drop of lamp oil to a teaspoon of sugar. The book says, “If this didn’t work, you got well on your own.”

Based on these, sounds like I’d do fairly well to just take a teaspoonful of sugar and go to bed!

How about you–do you have any tried and true remedies for a cold?


Appalachian Thursday–Ramp Season


My brother digging ramps on the family farm.

Flowers are blooming, afternoons are warm, the sun moves more slowly across the sky . . .

It’s the time of year when the old folks start shunning preserved foods for something fresh. Something green. Poke sallat. Fiddleheads. And ramps, which are somehow getting to be downright mainstream.

My great-grandmother would be thrilled with the chance to add all this chlorophyll and vitamin C to her family’s diet. And I, too, could be dining on fresh, wild produce. I know what it looks like. I know to pick dandelion greens in wild places where they haven’t been treated with chemicals. And I know where there’s a mighty fine patch of ramps.

But I’m not planning to head out with my foraging basket any time soon. Honestly, I’m just not that fond of these fresh, wild greens that were basically a matter of survival for my ancestors. Maybe I need another generation or two between me and this not very glamorous foraging–not for delicacies–but for sustenance.

I have a friend who took a cooking class in France. They prepared creasy greens and rabbit. Hmmm. So. They cooked plants my grandmother would have gathered in the ditches with meat my grandfather would have shot or trapped. I’m sure it was delicious, but it seems incongruous to me that this is haute cuisine.

I’m all for home-grown foods; for native foods indigenous to a place. But ramps make you stink. Poke turns poisonous later in the season and fiddleheads? Well, I prefer to just look at them.

Bon appetit.

Appalachian Thursday–Stump Water

Stump Water

A fine source of stump water.

I have freckles. More than an adorable smattering across my nose. More than a dusting across my cheeks. I have a freckle on my lip, on my eyelids, my ears. And when I was a kid I wanted them GONE. Luckily (or not) there are quite a few folklore remedies for freckles including washing your face in stump water–which is readily available in the mountains of Appalachia.

You can also wash freckles in dew before sunrise on the first of May. Or, you can use the water from an urn in a graveyard to rinse them away. (Hint: None of these work.)

As an adult I’m delighted with my freckles. I credit them with tricking people into thinking I’m younger than I am. And more innocent. When you still look a bit like Laura Ingalls, people tend to think you’re sweet ; )

Of course, stump water is good for other things as well–curing warts for example. The way I heard it, you were to soak a dishcloth in stump water and then apply it to the wart. But Mark Twain had a different take on things.

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and Huck have the following exchange about curing warts:

“Why, spunk-water. . . You got to go all by yourself, to the middle of the woods, where you know there’s a spunk-water stump, and just as it’s midnight you back up against the stump and jam your hand in and say:

‘Barley-corn, barley-corn, injun-meal shorts,
Spunk-water, spunk-water, swaller these warts,’

and then walk away quick, eleven steps, with your eyes shut, and then turn around three times and walk home without speaking to anybody. Because if you speak the charm’s busted. . .”

It probably doesn’t work, but if you want to get rid of something badly enough, might be worth a shot. Right?