Martha's Vineyard Garden Club Report : The uses and lore of plants
In her talk at the June meeting of the Martha's Vineyard Garden Club, Suzan Bellincampi mentioned author Elaine Pace, whose recently published book, "Island Home: Why People Come to Martha's Vineyard and Why They Stay," includes her. She told the Garden Club at the Old Mill in West Tisbury, "Thanks to Elaine, I now have a bio."
And an impressive one it is. Ms. Bellincampi spent two-and-a-half years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, and four years sailing aboard a restored oyster schooner working as an educator on the environment. Soon after her arrival on Martha's Vineyard, she became a director of training for the Trustees of Reservations. Today she is the director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.
Ms. Bellincampi spoke on ethnobotany, the study of how people and different cultures use native plants. She presented a slide show of "plants I have known and loved," and explained that being a Peace Corps volunteer in West Niger marked a turning point in her life which connected her with the natural world. Although she admires the birds at Felix Neck, she does not hesitate to express her feelings: "Birds fly away, plants stay put."
Her talk described various plants, their uses, and the lore that accompanies them.
One example of plant life she described as, "divine," is the "69th most populous tree in the United States," the locust. It is a tree that once was used extensively in the making of baseball bats, and whose wood "sparkles in the wood stove." The locust is a popular choice for fence posts and its flower can "make a mean fritter," according to Ms. Bellincampi.
Supposedly, when Eve left the Garden of Eden, she took along a clover (along with her fig leaf). The clover was thought to be useful in seeing evil spirits. A lucky four-leaf clover comes along only once in 10,000 plantings. According to the Guinness Book of Records, an 18 leaved clover has been identified. Another myth or fact about clovers is that children who carry them into the woods are allowed to see fairies.
Ms. Bellincampi also spoke about narcissuses and daffodils. Wordsworth wasn't thinking about the poisonous toxin inside the flower when he penned the famous line: "And then my heart fills with pleasure and dances with daffodils."
More lore and uses attached to daisies and the fungus lichens held the attention of the audience. Harris tweeds are said to be colored with the dye of a type of lichen. The native cow parsnip, like an asparagus plant, needs to be peeled and has a mysterious property of making some people photosensitive. Other properties of cow parsnip include warding off mosquitoes and evil spirits.
Yarrow is sometimes referred to as "Warrior's Woundwart," a reference to Achilles' wounded heel, and the plant has been known to staunch bleeding, cure hemorrhoids and potential blindness, as well as being a powerful love charm.
While goldenrod has fallen out of favor, during the Crusades it was used to treat fevers, and after the Boston Tea Party, goldenrod tea was an alternative. Sue Silva, in the garden club audience, quipped, "Thankfully, it didn't catch on." But Thomas Alva Edison did use goldenrod to make a type of latex.
Boiled pine needles prevent scurvy, and Swain's Panacea is related to an active ingredient in aspirin and was thought to be good for "Women's ill."
"Drinking the juice (of grape leaves) helps the dysenteric, the blood spitters, and women that lust."
More good fun and homespun lore is attached to the lady slippers, a member of the iris family, thought to be an aphrodisiac for men and women. Milkweed is a great plant for butterflies and for stuffing life-jackets. A milkweed stuffed jacket will stay buoyant after 100 hours of submerging.
Meeting attendees were told they would do good deeds if they sleep on seeds from cattails. Then, in the morning, they can use the cattails to make bread and muffins.
The sweet pepper bush, or Sailor's Delight, is the "poor man's soap." Peat moss is a potential super-fuel. In closing Ms. Bellincampi quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The Earth laughs in flowers."
While Emerson hears laughter in flowers, Suzan Bellincampi admits only to hearing, "giggles in plants."