Naming The Elf

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Back in the days before the Internet, the joy of discovery was elusive and hard-won. 

Recently I was at an herb festival where I was seated at a table to sign books and visit with customers. On either side of me were stacks of my new book, Making Herbal Dream Pillows (Storey, 1998), and perched on top of one stack was an elf, about twelve inches tall. I’d seen the elf the previous year in one of the vendor’s booths, and I really liked him. That year I’d talked myself out of purchasing the little creature. This year, however, he was still in the booth of the lady who had created him, so I bought the little guy and took him to sit on my books.

Several people wandered past and asked what the elf’s name was. I didn’t know, so we discussed possibilities.

I’d just signed a couple of books for a customer when I saw a little boy and his mother approaching. The boy was probably seven or eight years old, with sandy blond hair and little pointed ears that looked for all the world like elf ears. He walked right up and said to me, “I really like your elf.”

I thought to myself, “Here’s a boy, part elf himself, who will know the elf’s name if anyone does.” So I replied, “We don’t know the elf’s name–but I thought possibly you might know.”

He put his finger to his mouth and smiled, then looked up at the ceiling for a moment. “His name is Jingles,” he said quickly, “and he likes books.” The answer was right there in front of me–but I had to know where to look.

But what if it hadn’t been an elf name I was looking for, but instead information about an obscure plant? Does it ever seem like there’s information floating around, just out of your reach, when you need it most? The challenge isn’t looking for the information, it’s knowing where to look or whom to ask.

In the tiny town where I grew up, there was no library. There was no Internet, and the reference books in our one-room school were pre-World War II and not one of them dealt with native plants. But I wanted to know all kinds of answers to my plant questions. I’d go out on the prairie and sit and study a plant that looked important to me. I’d take a piece home to the little country grocery store my parents ran and I’d question every customer who came in. “Do you know the name of this plant?” I’d pester.

But the information wasn’t really in that town. People knew common plants; they knew the ones that were important for folk medicines and they knew the flowers and vegetables that grew in their yards. The plants that grew in the countryside, along the river, in the hills and woods, or out on the prairie–these exceeded my neighbors’ available knowledge. Still, I was desperate to know the names of things. So I tried other methods. I drew my plants with pencil in a notebook. I transplanted them into my wildflower garden so I could see how they grew. Soon I learned to visit with travelers who had stopped for soda pop and candy bars in my parents’ store. Sometimes there would be someone from the Conservation Department, and they would look at my plant or drawing and tell me where I could go to get information.

I visited regularly with all the old-timers in my town and gathered any information they had. Several times an old fellow would tell me that he didn’t know anything about growing things, but would then remember how his grandmother used a particular plant to heal a wound or cure an ailment.

Through these tactics, I learned about using wild ginger for sore throat liniment and horehound for cough-drop candy. The old people in our town taught me how to take a rose and place it under a fruit jar to root it, and how to graft apple scions onto established wood. I learned about folk remedies for warts, for bruises, and for first aid.

Just like the elfin little boy who was drawn to my table, I seemed to attract people who knew plants. The conservation people began to drop off information for me. I began taking Sunday school classes and 4-H groups on foraging trips, teaching what I’d learned and in turn, learning more myself. Today, it’s much easier to get information about plants through websites, classes, great books, and more. The resources are within the reach of any community, no matter how remote.

But I still like to think that imagination is important in the quest for information–that desire and hope, faith, and resourcefulness, are part of the joy of the search. My wish for my young friend, who could discover the identity of an elf in a crowded room, is that he might find the same kind of joy in seeking the names of plants around him.

Jim Long, an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas, travels to about twenty herb shows per year.

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