This week, the Hill Country meadows are punctuated with purple exclamation points. This lavender beauty is gayfeather (Liatris spicata), or blazing star, also called snakeroot and colic root. Mrs. Grieve, in her Modern Herbal (not so modern: 1929) reports that the plant was used as a diuretic, as a topical treatment for sore throat, to treat snakebite, and to flavor tobacco and repel moths. The latter two uses are probably related to the coumarin in its tuberous root (coumarin smells like vanilla). One species native to the eastern U.S. (L. scariosa) is called “Devil’s bite” because the root looks like somebody nipped a chunk out of it. For Native Americans, it was a heal-all. They brewed up a tea that treated kidney, bladder, and, um, sexually transmitted diseases–as well as sore throat, colic, laryngitis.
Not incidentally, gayfeather is one of a large group of native North American plants which were used as abortifacients. When you read that a plant was employed to treat “menstrual problems,” think contraceptive/abortifacient. For centuries, women taught one another what worked to help them avoid pregnancy when they couldn’t support another child. They used local plants. Gayfeather is one of them.
On my desk this week, more research in the current work-in-progress, a biographical novel about the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and Maria Chabot, the woman who built the beautiful O’Keeffe house in the New Mexico village of Abiquiu. During the most active decade of their friendship (1941-1949), the women exchanged over 700 letters, published in this collection. Their relationship (like many friendships) was an evolving, complex, and highly nuanced mixture of needs (Georgia’s) and desires (Maria’s), complicated by distance and competing people and activities. Important: Please, if you read the letters, be wary of the editor’s comments. She wants to direct you to a particular interpretation–hers. But hers is not the only interpretation of this long, complex exchange. When it comes to letters, a good editor gives you the texts, explains their historical context and any obscure references, and lets you decide what they mean.
The novel will be based on the women’s letters, but also on materials from the massive collection of papers that Maria donated to the O’Keeffe Research Center in Santa Fe. There’s no Chabot biography, but the current Wikipedia post fills in many of the details of Maria’s life. I’m planning a trip to Santa Fe next month to dig through the archives for more information about this remarkable woman’s fascinating and multi-faceted life. O’Keeffe’s life is already well documented. Of the biographies, I’ve enjoyed Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life and Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The last and most intriguing chapter, the elderly O’Keeffe’s years with the much younger Juan Hamilton, has yet to be written. This novel isn’t going there.
Book news: latest release. Please let your librarians know that Hemlock (the latest in the China Bayles series) is available from their usual distributor–also in audio and large print. The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker (#10 in that series) is with the layout editor now and will be published next April or May. I’m not sure when the O’Keeffe/Chabot novel will be published: maybe very late 2022 or early 2023.
Otherwise. Our Alaska son, Michael, is in Austin for a visit. We keep up via Facebook (which has its positive side, as well as negative) but it’s lovely to see him face-to-face. And even unmasked, since we’ve all had both vaccinations. It looks like our county might be getting a little break from Covid, although the deaths are still climbing, the vaccination rate is too low, and the people in the grocery store are mostly unmasked. (Texas is one of the states where the governor has mishandled the pandemic from the beginning.) Bill and I will be first in line to get our Moderna booster as soon as it’s available. Hope you’ll be getting yours, too. Keeping the infections down is the only way to stave off new and more dangerous variants–and more unnecessary deaths.
Reading note. Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.–Wendell Berry
Just finished Hemlock. I’m about 1 hour from Asheville in Northeast TN. I’m an avid gardener and reader! Really enjoyed your book. This is my first one of yours. I loved China and can’t wait to start from the beginning. With love, Ashley
I so enjoy the pics as I likewise find so much pleasure in reading many of your books. I had no idea there were 9 books in your Darling Dahlias series’. I must have missed a couple. I.am impatiently waiting for the next one. It was also a pleasure to read An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days. I loved having the marginal notes. They were insightful–added so much to the content. So far I have not been able to settle in to the other memoir–Together Alone. There are so many good books and too limited a time to read.
Susan, I loved “Hemlock” which my local library obliged my request to order. The chicken and slicks recipe turned out well. Thank you for including regional recipes. I like the research topic each book explores–from early automobiles, wireless, art thefts, dactiloscopy, and on and on. Keep of the good work. Through Kansas Interlibrary loans, I have finished reading the Robin Paige series. I wish there were more!
Neat that Gayfeather blooms at this time of year. And interesting that it may deter moths. Perhaps it would be good to plant near cabbage and the other Brassicas to shoo-away the white cabbage moths? Happy to tell you that our local libraries are all ordered-up with the various versions of Hemlock! I am saving it to read in late winter when I can really use a China Bayles pick-me-up. It sounds so interesting. Happily I have a lot of catching up to do on your other wonderful series. Many thanks for all you treat us with in your posts and books!
SandyS, Maybe better shoo-aways for cabbage moths: wormwood or southernwood, thyme, tansy, marigolds. Marigolds are easier to manage, since they’re annuals, like cabbage. The perennial herbs are better for borders that don’t get disturbed every planting season. Glad for the news about your library. Thank you!
Many thanks for your reply! I have two wormwood plants that do surprisingly well here in the PNW. My flower beds such as they are, have become mixed beds for whatever will grow best in each location. Veggies, flowers – perennials and annuals and oh my yes, a weed or two. Getting through our recent 3 month dry spell was a challenge. Hot and dry is not how one thinks of Washington state. But, it seems the trend for the last few summers. sigh
So, I am trying to be flexible and adding drought tolerant plants along with less tilling and better mulching. Just learned that I can also add a couple of handmade white cabbage moth replicas to flap over the cabbage to deter the live ones. How fun! You can bet I will be doing this, along with planting some winter salad greens in an old wheelbarrow that I can wheel in and out of the garage as the weather necessitates. Still like the idea of Gayfeather blooming this time of year and will try find a good place for it, too!
I think recall reading that another way the older herbals indicated that a plant was an abortifacient was a cautionary note that pregnant women should be careful to avoid the plant. After all, they were warning of danger. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes, that’s true. Any chemical that can cause uterine contractions can end a pregnancy. Here’s more, with some spice examples: https://www.livestrong.com/article/544320-can-spices-cause-a-miscarriage/ (The post mixes spices and herbs, but you get the idea.) Dosage is important–typically, teas aren’t strong enough to do it. Tinctures are more effective (or dangerous, depending on your point of view). This was part of the story in Queen Anne’s Lace: https://susanalbert.com/queen-annes-lace-book-26/
UPDATE: Just today (10/14/21), the JSTOR editors posted this interesting piece, I think in response to the current concerns about women’s control of reproduction: https://daily.jstor.org/abortion-remedies-medieval-catholic-nun/
Ive read all of the China books and love them, look forward to the next one every year. I read Hemlock and did not care for it. I love the ones that are in Pecan Springs better, its like visiting old friends.
I understand, Kate: the Pecan Springs books are so comfortable–just feels like coming home, doesn’t it? But as a writer, I can only grow through taking risks, and if I’m going to continue these long-running series, I need to explore new territory. I’m always grateful to readers who are willing to go there with me.
Thank you for the lovely pics & info about gayfeather blooms. Not just weeds. We need to appreciate our herbs everyday. Also, I just finished HEMLOCK – what two grand stories you told. Excited to read your O’Keeffe novel next year as well. Cheers, Susan. 🍁
I love herbal teas and the ideas and information you’ve given via your books and newsletters is very useful. I’m reading Hemlock now and enjoying it!
Besides your great books, I enjoy your little ewsletter. It’s so informative.
Love your books, postings and advice!!!
Fascinating. What an education for one not schooled in plants and flowers! Thanks, Susan.
This is a great plant! I just bought seeds to plant this fall along with roots for Big Bluestem from . All part of my restoration efforts on my 3 acre “pocket prairie”
Three cheers for you, Liz, for planting both gayfeather and the wonderful Big Bluestem. Our native grasses are imperiled by invasive plants and habitat destruction. In our little prairie, our native bluestems are being pushed out by the imported, very vigorous King Ranch bluestem. Here in Texas, October is a wonderful month to celebrate our grasses, since many are blooming and setting seed now–they’re more visible than at other points in their life cycle.
Reading about Gayfeather was very interesting. I’ve seen the plant and always thought that it was some kind of lavender. I was fascinated that there were so many conditions that the plant could be used for. I wonder if the plant is considered a wildflower or an herb. Thoughts?
Good question, Stephanie. “Herb” is a word traditionally used to describe “useful” non-food plants–medicinal, dye, fiber, craft, etc. “Wildflower” is a catch-all that is loosely used to describe native flowering plants. A “wildflower” can be an “herb”–and most are.
Thanks for letting us know about another lavender flower. I love the color and have had no luck in growing lavender here in CT. When we moved into this house many years ago, the flowers in the gardens were either, blue, purple or white. A previous owner had had an English gardener. I haven’t been able to keep it up, but have photos. Watching plants grow is good for the soul.c
Susan, have you ever been to Abiquiu? We have been close to Ghost Ranch, but never went to Georgia’s house. I have always wanted to visit!
Enjoy your son’s visit!! Our sleeves are rolled up awaiting the Moderna booster too!
Yes, to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch several times, Linda–it’s not far from our cabin in New Mexico. Building that house was a stunning achievement, especially during that era (1945-1950). I’m glad to see that the O’Keeffe website gives Maria the appropriate credit (at last!) for her work. O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch house (not part of the Presbyterian Ghost Ranch retreat center) isn’t available for visits.
It’s wonderful that your son is able to visit. My son and family lived in Anchorage for several years and loved it there. And I loved visiting. I have enjoyed all the China Bayles books and am looking forward to reading Hemlock.