When I was a kid, if we didn’t know the names of something, we came up with our own. To this day, I still refer to certain trees and grasses by those names we created.
For example, there was a weed that grew in my granddad’s pasture each summer. One day, for some reason known only to a ten-year-old, I plucked the bright green weed and thought, I think I’ll eat that.
I’m sure that’s not the first time something like that has happened in human history. I wonder about the first guy who ate a raw oyster, or the first human who looked at a fresh-laid chicken’s egg and thought, that just came out of chicken’s butt…I think I’ll eat it.
With that genetic history going for me, I popped the top part of the leaves in my mouth and crunched down on it, and the danged thing tasted great. From then on, I’d eat the tender seed-shaped green leaves, and try to get Cousin to do the same.
“Try some of this pepperweed.”
“I don’t eat weeds. How do you know what it’s called?”
“I just made it up. You eat stuff out of the garden. I bet those were weeds first.”
“You pull radishes out of the ground and eat the roots, dirt and all. What if the tops tasted good, too?”
“Leaves like that are poison.”
“Spinich. Turnup greens. Green onions.”
I was beside the hay barn with the Old Man one day and plucked one.
“Have you ever tasted this before?”
He frowned down at me and shifted his chew.
“Can’t say as I have.”
“Tastes like pepper.”
“Why’d you put that in your mouth in the first place?”
“It looked like it might taste all right.”
“Son, I’m not sure about you.”
I was grown before I finally looked it up, and by golly, it’s called Pepperweed, belonging to the mustard family. I was smarter back then than anyone gave me credit for.
One day during my Experimental Phase of life, probably around ten, I decided to slice off a piece of tree bark and taste that, too. There’s no logical reason why I did that.
It was one of the ugliest trees in the pasture, with wart-like bark made up of tiny, pyramid-shaped nodules, some of which were sharp. The inside of the bark looked okay, slightly yellowish, so using that same logic as the pepperweed, I popped it into my mouth and started chewing.
Ten minutes later I was in the house, terrified that I’d killed myself.
“Ly tnge ith nub. Will ly tnge fall out?”
The Old Man held out his hand and I spit the slightly chewed, wet mass into his hand.
“That’s a toothache tree. You’ll live.”
“Tut hake tee?”
“Yeah, Indians and the early settlers used it for toothaches. It’ll make your tongue or gums go numb for a little while, but you’ll be all right. What made you put that in your mouth?”
“I wanted to see what it thasthed like.”
He studied me for a minute.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t be following any chickens around the yard till you get that out of your system.”
Not understanding what he meant by that, I went back outside with Cousin. Years later, I found a description of that tree, the Southern Prickly Ash, which tends to sprout along fence rows and the edges of the woods, below the favorite nesting places of birds, so once again, he was right about that chicken thing.
The next odd plant I remember tasting was bizarre even by my own standards. Alfalfa always smelled wonderful, but it wasn’t as pleasant a chew as I’d hoped. Showing at least some sense, I refrained from tasting Johnson Grass.
Of course there was honeysuckle, and I once spent an afternoon pulling blooms off the vines, pinching the stem end and pulling it outward, drawing the tiny drop of nectar out with the stamen. I managed to get enough of that syrup in me that I was sick for a whole night.
Then finally, there was the grass that inevitably crawled up the legs of our jeans when we were in the pastures. We made up the name, ticklegrass. The only way to get the thin, hair-like grass out of our pants was to drop them, reach into the leg, and pluck out the annoying stems.
I think the day the Old Man seriously considered getting me some therapy was when he saw Cousin and I standing in the middle of the pasture with our jeans down, reaching into our pant legs for that tickling grass.
Cousin plucked out a piece and frowned at it.
“I hate ticklegrass.” He was buckling his belt when my fingers located the stem that had worked up past my knee.
The grass was usually dry, but this one had a green stem. Standing there, pants around my ankles, I held it up.
“Wonder what this tastes like.”
I crunched the stem between my teeth.
“Tastes like grass.”
“I’ll be danged. Grass that tastes like grass.”
I buckled my pants and turned around just in time to see the Old Man on the porch, shaking his head. He hollered across the drive and pasture.
“Y’all stay away from them chickens, and come to think of it, the horses, too, and their meadow muffins.”
Old people are weird, I thought and we went about our business of being kids.
Funny, though, because when I looked that grass up just today on the internet, it’s called hairgrass, or…wait for it…ticklegrass.
Reavis Z. Wortham is an award-winning outdoor writer with family ties to Lamar County.