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Gardens - Meetin' Seed And Sabbath Day Posies

( Originally Published 1901 )



" I touched a thought, I know
Has tantalized me many times.
Help me to hold it ! First it left
The yellowing Fennel run to seed."

-ROBERT BROWNING.

MY " thought " is the association of certain flowers with Sunday ; the fact that special flowers and leaves and seeds, Fennel, Dill, and Southernwood, were held to be fitting and meet to carry to the Sunday service. " Help me to hold it " — to record those simple customs of the country-side, ere they are forgotten.

In the herb garden grew three free-growing plants, all three called indifferently in country tongue, " meetin' seed." They were Fennel, Dill, and Cara-way, and similar in growth and seed. Caraway is shown on page 342. Their name was given because, in summer days of years gone by, nearly every woman and child carried to " meeting " on Sundays, bunches of the ripe seeds of one or all of these three plants, to nibble throughout the long prayers and sermon.

It is fancied that these herbs were anti-soporific, but I find no record of such power. On the contrary, Galen says Dill " procureth sleep, wherefore garlands of Dill are worn at feasts." A far more probable reason for its presence at church was the quality assigned to it by Pliny and other herbalists down to Gerarde, that of staying the " yeox or hicket or hicquet," otherwise the hiccough. If we can judge by the manifold remedies offered to allay this affliction, it was certainly very prevalent in ancient times. Cotton Mather wrote a bulky medical treatise entitled The Angel of Bethesda. It was never printed ; the manuscript is owned by the American Antiquarian Society. The character of this medico-religious book may be judged by this opening sentence of his chapter on the hiccough:

" The Hiccough or the Hicox rather, for it's a Teutonic word that signifies to sob, appears a Lively Emblem of the battle between the Flesh and the Spirit in the Life of Piety. The Conflict in the Pious Mind gives all the Trouble and same uneasiness as Hickox. Death puts an end to the Conflict."

Parson Mather gives Tansy and Caraway as remedies for the hiccough, but far better still — spiders, prepared in various odious ways ; I prefer Dill.

Peter Parley said that " a sprig of Fennel was the theological smelling-bottle of the tender sex, and not unfrequently of the men, who from long sitting in the sanctuary, after a week of labor in the field, found themselves tempted to sleep, would sometimes borrow a sprig of Fennel, to exorcise the fiend that threatened their spiritual welfare."

Old-fashioned folk kept up a constant nibbling in church, not only of these three seeds, but of bits of Cinnamon or Lovage root, or, more commonly still, the roots of Sweet Flag. Many children went to brooksides and the banks of ponds to gather these roots. This pleasure was denied to us, but we had a Flag root purveyor, our milkman's daughter. This milkman, who lived on a lonely farm, used often to take with him on his daily rounds his little daughter. She sat with him on the front seat of his queer cart in summer and his queerer pung in winter, an odd little figure, with a face of gypsylike beauty which could scarcely be seen in the depths of the Shaker sunbonnet or pumpkin hood. If my mother chanced to see her, she gave the child an orange, or a few figs, or some little cakes, or almonds and raisins ; in return the child would throw out to us violently roots of Sweet Flag, Wild Ginger, Snakeroot, Sassafras, and Apples or Pears, which she carried in a deep detached pocket at her side. She never spoke, and the milk-man confided to my mother that he "took her around because she was so wild," by which he meant timid. We were firmly convinced that the child could not walk nor speak, and had rio ears ; and we were much surprised when she walked down the aisle of our church one Sunday as actively as any child could, displaying very natural ears. Her father had bought a home in the town that she might go to school. He was rewarded by her development into one of those scholars of phenomenal brilliancy, such as are occasionally produced from New England farmers' families. She also became a beauty of most unusual type. At her father's death she "went West." I have always expected to read of her as of marked life in some way, but I never have. Of course her family name may have been changed by marriage; but her Christian name, Appoline, was so unusual I could certainly trace her. If my wild and beautiful little milk girl reads these lines, I hope she will forgive me, for she certainly was queer.

When her residence was in town, Appoline did not cease her gifts of country treasures. She brought on spring Sundays a very delightful addition to our Sabbath day nibblings and browsings, the most delicious mouthful of all the treasures of New England woods, what we called Pippins, the first tender leaves of the aromatic Checkerberry. In the autumn the spicy berries of the same plant filled many a paper cornucopia which was secretly conveyed to us.

It was also a universal custom among the elder folk to carry a Sunday posy; the stems were discreetly enwrapped with the folded handkerchief which also concealed the sprig of Fennel. Dean Hole tells us that a sprig of Southernwood was always seen in the Sunday smocks of English farm folk. Mary Howitt, in her poem, The Poor Man's Garden, has this verse:

"And here on Sabbath mornings
The goodman comes to get
His Sunday nosegay — Moss Rose bud,
White Pink, and Mignonette."

This shows to me that the church posy was just as common in England as in America; in domestic and social customs we can never disassociate our-selves from England; our ways, our deeds, are all English.

Thoreau noted with pleasure when, at the last of June, the young men of Concord "walked slowly and soberly to church, in their best clothes, each with a Pond Lily in his hand or bosom, with as long a stem as he could get." And he adds thereto almost the only decorous and conventional picture he gives of himself, that he used in early life to go thus to church, smelling a Pond Lily, "its odor contrasting with and atoning for that of the sermon." He associated this universal bearing of the Lily with a very natural act, that of the first spring swim and bath, and pictured with delight the quiet Sabbath stillness and the pure opening flowers. He said the flower had become typical to him equally of a Sunday morning swim and of church-going. He adds that the young women carried on this floral Sunday, as a companion flower, their first Rose.

This Sabbath bearing of the early Water Lilies may have been a local custom ; a few miles from Walden Pond and Concord an old kinsman of mine throughout his long life (which closed twenty years ago) carried Water Lilies on summer Sundays to church; and starting with neighborly intent a short time before the usual hour of church service, he placed a single beautiful Lily in the pew of each of his old friends. All knew who was the flower bearer, and gentle smiles and nods of thanks would radiate across the old church to him. These lilies were gathered for him freshly each Sabbath morning by the young men of his family, who, as Thoreau tells, all took their morning bath in the pond through-out the summer.

There were conventions in these Sunday posies. I never heard of carrying sprays of Lemon Verbena or Rose Geranium, or any of the strong-scented herbs of the Mint family ; but throughout eastern Massachusetts, especially in Concord and Wayland, a favorite posy was a spray of the refreshing, soft-textured leaves from what country folk called the Tongue plant— which was none other than Costmary, also called Beaver tongue, and Patagonian mint. As there has been recently much interest and discussion anent this Tongue plant, I here give its botanical name Chrysanthemum balsamita, var. tanacetoides. A far more popular Sunday posy than any blossom was a sprig of Southernwood, known also everywhere as Lad's-love, and occasionally as Old Man and Kiss-me-quick-and-go. It was also termed Meeting plant from this universal Sunday use.

A restless little child was once handed during thé church services in summer a bunch of Cara-way seeds, and a goodly sprig of Southernwood. The little girl's mother listened earnestly to the long sermon, and was horrified at its close to find that her child had eaten the entire bunch of Caraway, stems and seeds, and all the bitter Southernwood. She was hurried out of church to the village doctor's, and spent a very unhappy hour or two as the result of her Nebuchadnezzar-like gorging.

Like many New Englanders, I dearly love the scent of Southernwood : —

" I'll give to him
Who gathers me, more sweetness than he knows
Without me — more than any Lily could,
I, that am flowerless, being Southernwood."

Southernwood bears a balmier breath than is ever borne by many blossoms, for it is sweet with the fragrance of memory. The scent that has been loved for centuries, the leaves that have been pressed to the hearts of fair maids, as they questioned of love, are indeed endeared.

Southernwood was a plant of vast powers. It was named in the fourteenth century as potent to cure talking in sleep, and other " vanityes of the heade." An old Salem sea captain had this recipe for baldness : " Take a quantitye of Suthernwoode and put it upon kindled coale to burn and being made into a powder mix it with oyl of radiches, and anoynt a bald head and you shall see great experiences." The lying old Dispensatory of Culpepper gave a rule to mix the ashes of Southernwood with " Old Sallet Oyl" which "helpeth those that are hair-fallen and bald."

Far pleasanter were the uses of the plant as a love charm. Pliny did not disdain to counsel putting Southernwood under the pillow to make one dream of a lover. A sprig of Southernwood in an unmarried girl's shoe would bring to her the sight of her husband-to-be before night.

Sixty years ago two young country folk of New England were married. The twain built them a house and established their home. Since a sprig of Southernwood had played a romantic part in their courtship, each planted a bush at the side of the broad doorstone ; and the husband, William, often thrust a bit of this Lad's-love from the flourishing bushes in the buttonhole of his woollen shirt, for he fancied the fresh scent of the leaves.

The twain had no children, and perhaps therefrom grew and increased in Hetty a fairly passionate love of exact order and neatness in her home — a trait which is not so common in New England house-wives as many fancy, and which does not always find equal growth and encouragement in New England husbands. William chafed under the frequent and bitter reproofs for the muddy shoes, dusty garments, hanging straws and seeds which he brought into his wife's orderly paradise, and the jarring culminated one night over such a trifle, a green sprig of Lad's-love which he had dropped and trodden into the freshly washed floor of the kitchen, where it left a green stain on the spotless boards.

The quarrel flamed high, and was followed by an ominous calm which was not broken at breakfast. It would be impossible to express in words Hefty's emotions when she crossed her threshold to set her shining milk tins in the morning sunlight, and saw on one side of the doorstone a yawning hole where had grown for ten years William's bunch of Lad's-love. He had driven to the next village to sell some grain, so she could search unseen for the vanished emblem of domestic felicity, and soon she found it, in the ditch by the public road, already withered in the hot sun.

When her husband went at nightfall to feed and water his cattle, he found the other bush of Lad's-love, which had been planted with such affectionate sentiment, trodden in the mire of the pigpen, under the feet of the swine.

They lived together for thirty years after this crowning indignity. The grass grew green over the empty holes by the doorside, but he never forgave her, and they never spoke to each other save in direst necessity, and then in fewest words. Yet they were not wicked folk. She cared for his father and mother in the last years of their life with a devotion that was fairly pathetic when it was seen that the old man was untidy to a degree, and absolutely oblivious of all her orderly ways and wishes. At their death he sent for and " homed," as the expression ran, a brother of hers who was almost blind, and paid the expenses of her nephew through college — but he died unforgiving; the sight of that beloved Southernwood — in the pigpen—forever killed his affection.



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