Down to Earth: Joe “Pie” Weed

| December/January 2007

  • Illustration by Brian Orr

When I travel for lectures, I often get to lead, or sometimes follow along on, plant walks. If it’s a plant walk I’m leading, I make a point to explain that just because a plant was used for a certain purpose historically, it isn’t necessarily used for that same purpose today.

I always point out that when you identify a medicinal or culinary plant, you need to know more about the plant than simply, “Here’s heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), which was used historically for healing wounds.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone claim that lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina) was “used for emergency bandages during the Civil War.” It’s lovely to imagine that soldiers just reached out and plucked a handful of the fluffy-leafed gray plant and applied it to their wounds.

But the fact is, in all of the research I’ve done on Civil War plants over the last 20 years, I’ve never found a reliable reference to verify that lamb’s-ears leaves were used as bandages — spiderwebs and clothing were, but not lamb’s-ears. And while the plant might have been found in an occasional East Coast garden, it wasn’t grown widely enough to serve as bandages for the wounded.

Not long ago I was tagging along on a plant walk in an eastern state. As is often the case in such walks, there was a group of avid listeners following dutifully behind the leader, who was knowledgeable, and a second group of participants that was not able to keep up. Not being a fast walker, I quietly followed in the second group, listening and enjoying being outdoors. Since the leader had gone far ahead and none of us could hear what he said, people began to talk among themselves.

Soon, one woman emerged as the impromptu leader of our group. Since I was in an unfamiliar area, I listened carefully, hoping to learn something. The woman pointed out spicebush (Lindera benzoin), which I knew well. She mentioned it being useful in alleviating fevers and the flu, uses with which I was familiar.

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