Plant Folklore

Plant Folklore

Part of Ep. 502 Indoor Gardening

Join Dane County Parks Naturalist Wayne Pauly as he shares stories about rattlesnake master, compass plant,  spruce gum, cup plant and mullein.

Premiere date: Mar 31, 1997

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
A fun and easy way to learn about plants even if it's not the height of the growing season is by sharing some of the stories about them. For instance, this is rattlesnake master and it has some great stories attached to it. Joining me is Dane County Parks naturalist, Wayne Pauly. You tell some wonderful stories about rattlesnake master.

Wayne:
This is neat, especially in October when I'm collecting seeds with kids. I work with about 1000 kids every fall collecting prairie wildflower seeds. When I tell them they're going to go out and collect rattlesnake master, they don't want to go near it.

Shelley:
I don't blame them.

Wayne:
It's called that because the roots were used to master the poison of a rattlesnake after you've been bit.

Shelley:
That's a neat story. It's a very striking prairie plant in the dead of summer. You get little, white flowers not much bigger than these seed heads, here. And then the leaves are very desert-like. They look like the leaves of yuccas.

Wayne:
The surprising thing is although it looks a lot like a yucca it's related to queen anne's lace.

Shelley:
And sea holly, too, I believe.

Wayne:
Sea holly in your garden. People are probably more familiar with that one.

Shelley:
I know because of the story and the name rattlesnake master this is one I'm not going to forget very soon. You've got some others that have some neat history to them compassplant, for instance.
Wayne:
The one with the leaves as big as elephant ears?

Shelley:
That's what you tell people?

Wayne:
The kids think that they look that big. But they also want to know why it's called compassplant. Because you can tell direction with the leaves.

Shelley:
How?

Wayne:
The leaves point in a north-south direction. The edge points toward the sun. If you were to hold your hand out to the sun on a warm day...

Shelley:
Flat, you mean?

Wayne:
If you held your palm toward the sun, it would get warm. If you held the edge toward the sun it would stay a little cooler. That's what these plants are doing. They're holding their edge of their leaves toward the sun which is in the south so the leaves point in a north-south direction-- about 70% of the leaves point in a north-south direction.

Shelley:
So, as long as I pick the right leaf I could go in the right direction.

Wayne:
Yeah, so about 30% of the people got lost, I guess.

Shelley:
Maybe that's why the whole country got settled. People wandered all over the place. It's also a striking plant from a distance because it stands so high above the prairie. About ten feet, maybe?

Wayne:
Even on the drier prairies these will grow nine, ten, even 11 feet tall-- higher than I can reach. At the top, are bright yellow flowers as big around as saucers under a tea cup. And when they go to seed, the goldfinches fly out there. It almost looks as if the flowers are leaving the plant when you walk up to one to gather the seeds.

Shelley:
I feel like I'm growing an instant bird feeder when I plant this stuff. There's a nice story attached to compassplant. What is that?

Wayne:
The one that I like to tell the kids, because it sticks in their minds is about chewing gum. 150 Years ago, in pioneer days, the kids would go out and pick off that little bit of resin off the stalk.

Shelley:
This white stuff, then.

Wayne:
And they'd chew that. If I could get you-- I can't get you to chew that, can I?
Shelley:
It looks a little dry.

Wayne:
Well, maybe later, you'll smell it. It smells a little like pine resin. It tastes a little like pine resin, except it's milder. The other chewing gum that they had 150-200 years ago came from the spruce tree. They'd get big gobs of spruce gum from the pineries up north. They'd break off a hunk, chew on it and they'd have to spit for about 15 minutes to get it to a decent flavor. That first bite would taste like frozen gasoline.

Shelley:
Oh, wonderful.

Wayne:
Yeah, that's why they used to say that a sign of real friendship was when somebody else would get your spruce gum started for you.

Shelley:
And get rid of the taste for you.

Wayne:
This tasted good right off the stalk so you didn't need a friend to get it started for you.

Shelley:
When the settlers came across this plant they must have been thrilled.

Wayne:
I don't know about the adult settlers, but the kids were.

Shelley:
They were happy. Now, there's another plant that's closely related to compassplant called cupplant.

Wayne:
The one where the leaves form a bowl around the stem.

Shelley:
Little cups, almost, that hold water.

Wayne:
Even if it hasn't rained for about a week or two you still have water at the base of that cup, because the dew flows toward the center. People even see birds drinking water out of that.

Shelley:
I've seen hummingbirds and butterflies. They use them as little, miniature bird baths. It's a striking prairie plant, too. Now, this one is striking but it is not a prairie plant. I'm used to seeing it driving along the highways. You see it up on a hill, kind of always standing out by itself. This is mullein.

Wayne:
This one is sort of like us, it's not native. It came from Europe. I find it a very striking plant. It's surprising how many people know this plant. It has over 70 common names in English.

Shelley:
The leaves aren't particularly thrilling, but they're very soft and fuzzy.

Wayne:
People used to use them in the winter to line their shoes and keep their feet warm.

Shelley:
The stalk is the most striking part. The flowers are small and yellow. They don't open all at once along the stalk, so I think must be the height that attract people to it.

Wayne:
You've also got to remember that you've got multiple stems. So, if you've got eight or ten stalks coming up it looks like a candelabra, especially with the yellow flowers mimicking the flames.

Shelley:
And that's one of the stories attached to mullein, isn't it? You did some experimentation with it. It looks suspicious.

Wayne:
I decided to play with this. I soaked them in suet, like I'd read about-- that the romans used these as torches. So, I melted some suet and soaked them. You can see from the darkened end there, I lit one. It actually does burn.

Shelley:
So, you'd use these as torches?

Wayne:
No, I think I'll just put them by the bird feeder and let the woodpeckers finish off the suet.

Shelley:
Hey, great treat for them, especially this Time of year. This last one surprised me. This is nodding wild onion. I picked this from my prairie a week ago. It held up in the snow quite nicely.

Wayne:
I'm surprised to see they're still hanging in there. Usually, they've fallen out.

Shelley:
You can see where it's still nodding a little bit. They have beautiful, lavender flowers in the summer and strap-like, onion-looking leaves.

Wayne:
The most striking thing about it in the summer is the way it smells, its fragrance.

Shelley:
You can tell it's in the onion family.

Wayne:
Yeah, very much so. I've actually walked through an area where there was an acre of this and I can imagine what it was like to walk through hundreds of acres of it day after day. It's like walking on garlic all day long, sleeping on garlic, eating on garlic. The fragrance is very pungent. It's so pungent that the algonquins called it the "skunk." And where there were hundreds of acres of it, they called it the place of the skunk which was on the shores of Lake Michigan. They turned it into a town's name "Chicago," place of the skunk.

Shelley:
It's kind of a strange way to get your community named. But again, it's a story I'm not likely to forget. Where can we learn more about some of the plants that are out there?

Wayne:
There are literally hundreds of books that have been written about plant folklore. One that I really enjoy reading is "Red Oaks & Black Birches." It spins some nice, interesting tales. For example, the spruce gum story is from there.

Shelley:
One I enjoy is "Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles." It's nice to sit back on a wintery day and enjoy.

Wayne:
I agree.

Shelley:
Thanks, Wayne.

Shelley:
A friend once thought he was doing his houseplants a favor by letting the leaves that fell from it lay on the soil surface. His reasoning was that he was providing compost and mulch for the plant. Not a good idea! First of all, these fallen leaves are not compost. They're providing no food, whatsoever. They're also a perfect hiding place for insects and disease. The fungus gnat loves to hide in this kind of environment. It eats decomposing material in the soil and even nibbles on the fine root hairs of your houseplant. By doing that, it opens a pathway to directly introduce fungus and bacteria to your houseplant. So, clean off the fallen leaves on the soil surface.
Now, a mulch for your houseplant can be a good idea. For instance, these decorative stones are very useful in preventing water from evaporating too quickly. That's very handy considering how dry most of our homes are during the wintertime. You can purchase these at just about any nursery. You can even use a simple, colorful gravel as a mulch. They both serve the same purpose.

I like to take a lot of my houseplants out on the porch in the summer. I've found that a bark mulch works very well, like this one. This is the same mulch that you use on your perennial beds. Again, on your houseplants it will help slow the evaporation of water. It's very handy on a hot, summer day. I hope we've inspired you to try some different plants in your indoor garden.

EPISODE SEGMENTS+

Funding for The Wisconsin Gardener is provided, in part, by The Wisconsin Master Gardener Association.