A snipe hunt is a form of wild-goose chase, a practical joke that people like to tease unsuspecting newcomers with. It is the practice of making fun by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. It happened to me like this.
We were sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows, some friends and I, and with us was my older much more experienced cousin. He might have been nine or ten.
“We’re going on a snipe hunt tonight,” he said, “and here are some paper bags you’ll need to put the snipe in when you catch it.” He gave each of us youngest ones a brown paper bag.
“Now you need to go real quiet, bend way over, and look real close at the ground so you don’t miss him. You’ll need to cluck, like this,” and he made a clicking sound with his tongue.
“When you find him, real fast-like, you put that bag over his head and grab him up before he knows what caught him. Then you bring him back to me. I have a prize for whoever brings back the fattest snipe.”
“What color is he and does he bite?” I asked.
I realized I’d made a real faux pas when the older ones laughed right out loud, but I went on my way, bent over and clucking, determined to find the forever elusive snipe.
When we couldn’t find the fringe tree that Aunt Bett said was growing near the top of the mountain somewhere between us and Virginia, I told her we might as well be on a snipe hunt. We’d been looking for that tree for two summers. She said she just knew it was there somewhere. I already knew she often used plants interchangeably when she was making her home remedies and I suggested maybe we could find something else and make do, but no, she said she had to find that fringe tree and she just knew it was on the Virginia line, an invisible line that ran across the top of our mountain.
“What does the fringe tree look like, Aunt Bett?”
“You’ll know it when you see it, honey, ’cause this time of year it looks like a white bearded old man. We’ll mark it now, so we can find it anytime of the year.”
I didn’t know any old white bearded men except my great grandpa and he’d been gone for a few years. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing him shaking his cane at me again. But I kept right on following Aunt Bett.
The fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus, grows in damp woods, thickets, and alongside streams. It’s a member of the olive family, a native of the United States, and can be found from New Jersey to Oklahoma and south to Florida and Texas. It’s deciduous and can grow up to 40 feet tall. It has a scaly reddish brown bark with opposite leaves 4 to 8 inches long, oval shaped, dark green on top and pale green below. It has fragrant white flowers in early June that are 4-6 inches long and have long, white, fringe-like petals. It’s the flowers that give the tree its name, dancing in the breeze like the fringe on a dancing dress from the Charleston era, or like the long white beard of a grumpy old man.
It bears fruit too, fleshy, round and the darkest blue. It’s the blue fruit that shows its resemblance to the olive family. Strangely enough, most wildlife don’t eat the berries, but in the cold of winter, birds will often feast on them.
It’s pretty popular these days with landscapers and gardeners, but in those days when landscaping was something only the rich knew, the tree was a little difficult to find. It’s found mostly in the warmer climates and even so, it’s one of the last trees to let go of winter. It doesn’t leaf till late spring and then it welcomes summer with all those fringy white blooms that look for all the world like a blanket of snow. It’s really a pretty tree.
Several Native American tribes valued the medicinal qualities they thought the fringe tree had, believing it to be an astringent. They boiled the bark in water and used the liquid as a cleansing agent for external wounds. They also mashed the boiled bark to make a poultice to help heal deeper wounds.
Eventually physicians of the time also determined its medicinal qualities to be of value, but Aunt Bett didn’t care much about that; she believed strongly in information her Native American ancestors had handed down to her, nevermind what physicians said. She had been told it was a good diuretic, one that would decrease swelling anywhere in the body and she was determined to find that fringe tree.
For some reason I blamed Virginia for everything that ever went wrong. When someone was going to Virginia, we didn’t say we were going to Virginia, we said we were going OVER to Virginia. You see, we had to get over that mountain to get there. When rumors of a bear in our mountains reached my classmates and me, we just knew it was a Virginia bear that had been chased over the mountain to our side. If there was a fire on the top of the mountain, it was for sure somebody on the other side over in Virginia had set that fire. Every time we had an early or a late snow, it was Virginia’s fault. And I swear, I thought Virginia had stolen that fringe tree from the top of our mountain. Ironically, my college roommate of all four years had grown up in Virginia and there never has been a harsh word between us in very nearly 50 years. Funny how that happens.
Aunt Bett and I searched for the fringe tree so she could have a tonic that would reduce swelling in aching joints. I was a little frustrated because we’d searched so long for that tree and one day I asked her who needed to have swelling reduced. She held out her hands to me and I saw the gnarled fingers, misshapen by swelling and arthritis.
“Oh, Aunt Bett, what happened to your hands?”
“Ain’t nothin’ but hard work and old age, Honey, nothin’ to worry about. But I was hopin’ the fringe tree might ease the ache a little.”
I was old enough for her words to break my heart. I didn’t want Aunt Bett to ache. I was determined to find that fringe tree.
When I was about 10 or 11, I was allowed to roam the mountains pretty freely. I knew them very well, having made most of the paths with Aunt Bett over the years. It was not a hot day, so it must have been very late spring or early summer. I was wearing overalls and a red and white gingham shirt. I remember that because I had the same gingham ribbons in my braids. I was on the ridge, probably throwing rocks over at Virginia, when I turned back toward home. The sun was shining and as I turned, my eyes caught a glimpse of what I thought was snow on the mountain. I looked again and it was dazzling white in the sunlight. I walked toward the snow, wondering why it hadn’t melted already.
There it was, that grizzly old bearded man tree, right in front of me. I was afraid the blooms would disappear overnight and I had no idea what part of the tree Aunt Bett needed. It was a long way back down that mountain, but Aunt Bett had said we’d need to mark the tree. I jerked a gingham ribbon out of one of my braids and tied it around a limb. My heart can still see it, the red gingham ribbon blowing right along with the white fringes. It was the only way I knew to mark the tree.
I ran down the mountain that day, as fast as I could I hurried through Aunt Bett’s back door, one side of my hair curling wild and tangled, the other side barely holding its braid.
“I found the old man tree,” I yelled before I saw her. “I found it, Aunt Bett, and I know exactly where it is! I’ll go up early in the morning and I’ll gather whatever you need. It wasn’t really a snipe hunt! It’s a real tree and it isn’t over in Virginia.”
I rounded the corner into the kitchen and there sat my mother drinking coffee with Aunt Bett.
“Look at that hair, and where’s your ribbon? You traipse around those mountains playing that snipe game and just look what a mess you are! And what’s that about a man tree in Virginia? You aren’t allowed over in Virginia!”
“But Mama, I just saved Aunt Bett’s life, now didn’t I, Aunt Bett, I found the old man tree? And it isn’t over in Virginia; it’s on our side of the mountain!”
“You absolutely did, Honey, you absolutely did save my life!”
I don’t remember that my mother said another word. Now you see why Aunt Bett has always been my hero.
Look around. You might find that your landscape could be brightened by the addition of a fringe tree. For a lot of us right now would be a good time of year to plant it.
Sharon Brown, native of the Appalachians of East Kentucky, is known for her articles about wildflowers, plants, and Kentucky culture and history. Enjoy Sharon’s other articles HERE.
All images courtesy of Creative Commons.