Wildflowers: The Kentucky Reds

by Sharon Brown on June 1, 2017

in General,Guest Writers,Monthly Post

I grew up loving wildflowers. During the 40s and 50s there weren’t many other flowers available in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. I also grew up loving color and I was particularly attracted to red. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered very few red wildflowers growing in my mountains.

I’ve always had an obsession with color, jumping from one favorite straight to another.  Today it’s green, tomorrow it might be blue or yellow, but forever I have loved red. My mother is to blame for my color obsession. She made my clothes: blue flowered dresses with little blue socks and hair ribbons to match, pinafores of red gingham, jumpers of bright yellow, and pink polka dot shorts, all with matching socks and ribbons. It didn’t matter that some of these clothes were made from feed or flour sacks. If Mom took a notion, she could make a burlap bag look like a wedding dress. She was the same way about her flowerbeds. They were all beautifully color-coordinated, too.

My colorful fashion parade started during the time Dad was serving in WWII, when Mom spent all her time sewing and gardening and tending to me while he was away. I even had matching quilts because the scraps from my dresses were used in the quilt blocks. I didn’t have much to say about it. My mother dressed me just as she had dressed the dolls she played with years before, with attention to detail, the same way she carefully planted her flowers. Most days I insisted on wearing a matching flower with every change of clothes. Mom didn’t seem to mind as long as they were wildflowers, but I wasn’t to touch anything that was planted in her garden.

Chicory peeped out from the pockets of my blue flowered dress, blue as the sky, those blooms were. And dandelions were stuck in my braids to match the yellow jumper. In late summer I traded the dandelions for fronds of goldenrod and tied them around my waist with a yellow ribbon, like a little dancer in a golden tutu. The pink polka dots matched the wild roses that dangled from a braid or two.

Sad though it was, I had a few problems finding red wildflowers and at that time red was my favorite color.

There was the year when I became Little Red Riding Hood:  the summer when I wore red every day. I particularly remember the hooded cape my mother made for me. It was bright red, made from a scrap of fabric Mom had left over from a quilt she had pieced. I wore that cape until it was in shreds –  ripped by blackberry vines and tree limbs and the grape vines that swung me across the creek, all taking their toll on my red cape. It didn’t bother me a bit because I just knew I looked exactly like the picture in my Little Red Riding Hood book, the one where she carried a basket of flowers to her grandmother. I took to carryin’ a basket, too, just so I could gather wildflowers and June bugs, blue feathers and acorns, and pebbles washed smooth by the creek.

My mother had the red cardinal flower growing in her garden, and though I begged and pleaded, I wasn’t allowed to touch anything that she had planted. I was told to only pick flowers that grew freely on the mountains. My grandmother reminded me that there were tons of orange flowers all over the mountain, and orange was very close to red.

She mentioned the wild honeysuckle that grew on the hill beside my house, and the ditchlilies that lined the creek. But they weren’t truly red and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less. Besides, Mom had no likin’ for orange, so I had no clothes of that color. The orange wildflowers wouldn’t have matched a thing.

One early morning Aunt Bett appeared on our back porch.

“You’ll need that red cape of yours today,” she said. “I’m needin’ some tea leaves and I believe we’ll find you some red blossoms if you want to go up on the mountain with me.”

Faster than the squirrels ran up the hickory nut tree, I raced to grab my red cape. It wasn’t long before we got to a little flat clearing just above Aunt Bett’s house, and there, to my absolute delight, grew the most beautiful clumps of bright red flowers! They were so red that they were brighter than the butterflies and hummingbirds that fluttered above them.

“This here’s bee balm,” she said. “Them bees love it, but them butterflies and birds love it more. I’ll cut a few stems and hand ’em to you and you can carry ’em down the mountain.”

I stood at the edge of the blooms and watched as Aunt Bett and the butterflies flitted among all those red flowers. I marched down that mountain, proud as could be, my hands clasped around as many long stems of blooming bee balm as I could carry, holding them out in front of me like a bride all dressed in red carrying her bouquet down the aisle.  Bees, birds, and butterflies surely marched with me.

Bee balm, Monarda didyma, is a member of the mint family. It has fragrant minty leaves and flower buds that taste like spearmint or peppermint with a dash of oregano. It’s also a medicinal plant, a natural source of the antiseptic thymol, the main ingredient in modern mouthwash products. Our Native American ancestors used it to make poultices for minor wounds or skin problems. It was also made into a tea to treat sore throats or gum infections.

I think on that bright summer day, Aunt Bett simply wanted it as a tea, maybe to treat a headache, or maybe just as a general tonic. Truth is, she very well could have been simply catering to me. She knew how much I dearly loved red and she knew how few red wildflowers grew in the mountains. She stripped the leaves from the stalks, poured boiling water over them, and steeped them till the water cooled. She told me there were those who used bee balm as a seasoning to flavor wild game, but I only wanted to admire the red of those blooms, so I paid little attention to what she said. I also declined a cup of her bee balm tea. I was in a hurry to place my bright red blooms in a jar of water so I could admire them. Mason jars were the very best vases.

And oh those blooms! I’d never seen anything like them.  Each flower was a cluster of red spikes sitting on top of a very tall stem. I didn’t mind at all that she had stripped the leaves from the stems.  I marched right up that dusty one-lane road on my way home, holding my red blooms, dressed in my red hooded cape and with one brilliant red blossom tangled in my hair.

That was my Summer of Red. Mom’s cardinal flower and the bee balm were very nearly the only red wildflowers I found all summer long.

I do remember one more, which mostly played hide and seek with me — the fire pink, Silene virginica. We never gathered any fire pinks. Aunt Bett said it wasn’t good for any of her home remedies, and if it didn’t provide something she needed, we never disturbed it. I could only admire a glimpse of it now and then. It was a very tiny red bloom.

I’ve always looked for red wildflowers. There are so few. I do remember seeing a dark red trillium once in a while, but there aren’t many true reds among the mountain wildflowers. I’m sure there are other reds that didn’t grow up with me in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, but are growing in other areas throughout this state of mine. I doubt very much whether there is one any brighter or redder than the bee balm that Aunt Bett introduced to me. As red as my bright red cape, that beautiful bee balm was and will always be my favorite.

I learned long ago that wildflowers don’t take kindly to being transplanted. Unless you can create the identical environment it came from, a wildflower doesn’t do well when moved to a new location.  If you see wildflowers you can’t live without, it’s best to take note of the conditions they grow in. If you can recreate those conditions, then gather their seeds.

I still love red, but I don’t worry much about matching colors anymore. Sometimes a wildflower will find its way in and tangle in my hair, but purely by accident.

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.

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