Peonies and Peppermint

Here’s an excerpt from Peonies and Peppermint. It’s my Nanowrimo book that I’m working on this month. You’ll see it out next year. For now, here’s a step back in time, Arkansas ca 1850, where Jennie Lee and her daughter, Eliza, are out foraging for herbs.

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The photo that was my inspiration for Jennie Lee and Eliza

It took a few days, but with her mother’s ministrations and a few days of bed rest, Eliza was soon back to her usual daily activities. When Jennie stopped one morning and saw her daughter patching a pair of Luke’s pants, she brought up the idea of foraging. “You up for a walk in the woods? Want to help me scour the holler for plants?”

“I can go with you. I’m fit as a fiddle.” She chuckled and laid the mending on top of the sewing basket. “Long as you don’t play that fiddle for too long at one sitting.”

“Let me run home and get my scissors and a basket. I’ll meet you at the spring, quick as a flash.”

“Don’t hurry on my account. I don’t aim to rush. Not quite enough spring in my step yet.”

Jennie turned to go and Eliza reminded her. “Don’t forget your walking stick. Snakes are coming out now. Saw a copperhead when I went to gather eggs this morning.”

A short while later Jennie had retrieved her harvesting basket and a pair of shears. When she arrived at the spring both families shared at the base of the hollow, she saw that they were each outfitted for a walk in the underbrush. Bonnets topped each of their heads, they each carried a large rush basket and they both wielded a sturdy branch for a staff. They’d both changed to older skirts and blouses that had been patched and mended more times than they could count.

Jennie glanced down at the mismatched patches on one of her sleeves and laughed. “Guess it won’t hurt none if the briars get me again.”

The only difference in the attire of the two ladies was the scarf Eliza wore draped around her neck. Jennie pointed at the woolen scarf. “For all that talk of being well, you sure look like someone that’s still a bit under the weather.”

“I’m fine, Mother. Merely taking precautions. Don’t want to end up in bed again.”

“If you’re sure. We’ll take it easy. We’ll have a short outing and return so you can rest.”

“That would be nice. What plants are you looking for today?”

“I need to replenish my sassafras root. I’ll ask your father to dig that up for me. He can get larger pieces of root than we can. But, if you spy some young seedlings coming up, and we can tug them up easily, we’ll go ahead and harvest them.” She paused to think, as if running through a mental list, before continuing. “Poke salet, if you see any. It should be starting to appear about this time. Oh…and some coltsfoot and nettle. Those are always best to get in the spring.”

Having a goal in mind, the ladies began making their way down towards the bottom of the hollow, stepping cautiously on the slippery slope full of a winter’s worth of discarded leaves and foliage. Once they made their way to the lowest point, they ventured out, taking opposite hillsides, brandishing their sticks in the underbrush in front of them. They moved carefully, neither one wanting to be on the receiving end of a young copperhead’s wrath.

“Over here!” Eliza called out first. “Coltsfoot. A huge patch coming up.”

Jennie stepped over to Eliza’s side of the hollow and kneeled next to Eliza who was already plucking the fresh greenery sprouting from the earth. The women spent several minutes, tugging the emerald stalks that poked their way through the mulch of oak and sassafras leaves. Jennie added a handful to Eliza’s basket. “Better to keep it all together and not have to sort it out later.”

When they’d cleared a good portion of the patch, leaving some to grow and propagate, Jenny stood and wiped her brow. Looking over at her daughter, she squinted, as if sizing her up to see how she was holding up. Not even a bead of sweat glistened on Eliza’s brow. Jennie decided that they were good to keep going a bit longer.

They hadn’t wandered far from their first treasure trove when Jennie found the next. “Over here. There’s some nettles on this side.”

The women plucked gingerly on this crop. Even so, Eliza still muttered an occasional, “Ouch!”

Jennie laughed softly under her breath. “I see you don’t have as much experience at picking nettles.”

“No, I don’t, Mother. Honestly. I don’t know how you’ve done this for all these years.”

“It’s not so bad really. Look for the youngest ones. They’re not as prickly.”

“My fingers are starting to burn.” Eliza stuck a finger in her mouth and sucked on it to try to ease the sting.

“I’d say rub it with parsley when we get back, so you don’t get a nettle rash. But, I don’t think the parsley has come up yet. I’ll put a salve on it instead.”

“You and your herbs. Leave it to my mother to know what to do.” She stopped and looked at her mother with a quizzical expression on her face. “How’d you learn all of this?”

“Why, from my mother, of course. And her mother, too. Mostly from Granny, I suppose. She kept all the knowledge in her head. Walking through the woods with her was like having a talking book with you.” She smiled and paused, reflecting on her memories before she continued. “She knew more about plant medicine than anyone around. I don’t know but a small piece of what all she knew.”

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