Sunday, July 08, 2007

Bouncing Bess

What’s blooming in the area: Roses, cholla, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, sweet peas, Russian sage, datura, bigleaf globemallow, larkspur, purple phlox, purple mat flower, milkweed, tumble mustard, pink and white bindweed, yellow and white sweet clover, velvetweed, yellow evening primrose, wooly plantain, toothed spurge, Queen Anne’s lace, purple coneflower, bachelor button, zinnia, áñil del muerto, golden hairy aster, paper flower, goatsbeard, hawkweed, native dandelion, horseweed, wild lettuce, onions and squash. Apricots fallen near village. Two men were hoeing a corn field early Thursday morning.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Miniature roses, red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartwegii, butterfly weed, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemums.

Looking east: Floribunda rose, coral bells, small and large-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, sweet alyssum from seed, thrift, pink salvia, veronica, winecup, hollyhock, sidalcea, California and Shirley poppies.

Looking south: Tamarix, rugosa rose, morning glory, daylily, tomatilla, cosmos.

Looking west: Lilies, flax, catmint, white spurge, purple ice plant, ladybells, sea lavender, Shasta daisy, Monch aster; buds on caryopteris.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold; first cherry tomatoes turning red.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, quail, gecko, squash bug, dragon fly, large moths, grasshoppers, crickets; ants climbed stems for seed pods; bees on catmint and Shirley poppies; gopher killed large hollyhock.

Weather: Hot; storm blew through Wednesday, but left neither water nor cool air; trees, grasses and some plants browning; last rain June 27.

Weekly update: With summer heat comes flowers that persist on roadside shade and moisture Down the road, Bouncing Bess grows along walls and fences, much as it did when I lived in Wyandotte County, Ohio.

When I was driving to Upper Sandusky in the 1970's, I wondered how a European native cultivated by bronze age lake people migrated to marginal prairie lands in the midwest. It’s not ubiquitous like Queen Anne’s lace or goldenrod. Someone needs to plant it before its stolonous roots can spread through the damp soil to form long, sinuous colonies.

It could have been something simple. The leaves and roots contain saponins that lather when shaken in water. Claire Haughton suggests bargemen’s wives planted soapwort along canal banks to provide cleansers when they passed through. Today, Saponaria officinalis grows where the Ohio and Erie canal connected Cleveland to Akron.

Possibly German immigrants spread the perennial beyond the Appalachians for medicinal purposes: in the 1650's, Nicholas Culpeper reported they were using it for gonorrhea. Pennsylvania brewers exploited it as a foaming agent. In 1876, Severin Bechler, a native of Baden, arrived in Upper Sandusky from Delphos to the west to open a brewery.

Anyone could have encouraged the two foot plants that resembled pink sweet peas scrambling up both banks of drainage ditches near the road to Upper, but they were in a stretch with German barns and a Brethren church. In 1845, about a sixth of the testaments distributed by the county Bible society were Deutsche.

When I see it growing here I marvel again that it could skip the arid plains and even higher mountains to grow along a fence in front of a fallow garden. It’s unlikely anyone bought it. When I wanted the plant, the only mail order nursery I found happened to be about fifteen miles from Delphos.

It might have arrived with any of the attempts to improve the value of sheep, especially after wool supplanted mutton in the cash economy during the civil war. The Greeks used struthium to prepare yarn for dye. Fullers used the herb to shrink fabrics to make them more airtight. Textile mills planted latherwort along race banks to decontaminate fabrics before sending them to stamping plants.

In the 1940's, Curtin heard the plant called julián in Chimayó, while it was called clavelina elsewhere in the rio arriba. Julio was the local word for loom rollers; clavelina the Spanish term for pinks, another member of the carnation family. The Spanish call this plant saponella.

Any industrial or domestic uses had long been forgotten. Cattle had replaced sheep. Cheap, uniform, commercial yarns had displaced local ones when the railroads made them available. It never entered the curanderas’ pharmacopeia.

Curtin found people kept the five-petaled cymes in bowls to ward off flies. And they still keep them. Yesterday, the smooth, simple stems grew along three drives in Chimayó, and beside the road in front of another two homesteads. Here in the valley, people prefer the roadside where the sun faded flowers graced two places on the main road, one near the orchards, and three on the back road of the village.

Some say its called Bouncing Bess for the barmaids or Bouncing Bett for washerwomen or kiss-me-at the-gate for where it naturalizes. Others rule it an invasive weed. Me, I call it a welcome sight on a hot day, even if the stands degenerate when old blossoms cling while new shoots bloom

Cobos, Rubén Cobos. A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, 1983.

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1650's, 1826 edition republished in 1981.

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Cuyhahoga Valley National Park. “Control Plan for Alien Plant Species - May 1990,” available on-line.

Haughton, Claire Shaver. Green Immigrants, 1978.

Leggett, Conaway & Co. The History of Wyandot County Ohio, 1884.

Sigerist, Henry E. A History of Medicine, 1951, reference to lake people from Christopher Hobbs, “The History of Western Herbalism, “1998, available on-line.

Photograph: Bouncing Bess, about three miles down the road, 7 July 2007.

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