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Horse Nettle

Even thirty years ago, our Charleston friends couldn’t afford houses in the fancified parts of town, but they still wanted to be” in town, “ so lived in wonderful apartments in remarkably designed olderstructures. Most of these had non-existent yards, so container gardening was the rage even then for our urban dwelling compatriots. The city didn’t do lots of street beautification in those neighborhoods, and the spaces between sidewalks and streets were infrequently mowed and home to assorted self-established plants.

We went down for a weekend visit right after my mother died (she died thirty years ago this June 19th, after a two years of combating recurrent breast cancer. During that time, Sister Kappy and I took turns, a week on and week off, staying with her at our childhood home in Columbia. The silver lining was that she knew from our actions and words how much we loved her, but our children have never known a fine person who was complex enough and southern enough to be interesting (and at times exasperating, but who didn’t have a cruel bone in her body.

But back to horse nettle, Solanumcarolinese, the posting of a picture of which on MIG’s Facebook page made me remember this story. When we arrived in Charleston, we stood near the car, unpacking and chatting for a while. Our daughter, Eliza Frezil, then two, and with no fear of lizards or insects, scoured the weeds for wild flowers or stray reptiles. Eventually, we retired to the upstairs side porch, enjoyed both adult and child-appropriate beverages, cooked a great supper, and retired.

As often happened then, the mothers arose earlier than the fathers, since little children do like to have breakfast. Helen and I were sitting at the table when Helen started to laugh. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said pointing at Eliza Frezil.  One of her pupils was so dilated it completely covered her lovely blue iris.

Sadly, I’m enough of an amateur diagnostician to know that one dilated pupil is not funny but a sign of brain tumors and other things you don’t want to think about in your two-year old only child when you buried your mother a month earlier. Helen’s son Drummond has Down’s syndrome with especially difficult complications, and was under the care of one of the Medical University’s top pediatricians. We got through to that office which made an appointment for us at 12:30.

When we arrived, the dear female doctor said, “I saved you as the last appointment before lunch so we’d have plenty of time,” kind words, but in this case, not ones that relieved my fears. She went on to perform an extensive array of non-invasive procedures many of which involved invoking examples of ElizaFrezil’s remarkable sense of balance. (Her father, my dear husband, who should know better, still, at age 71, rides his bicycle sitting up straight with his arms folded across his chest and once gave his mother apoplexy when she saw him half way across the railroad cut standing on a  . .. but that’s a story for another day.)

After about a half hour of examinations, the doctor excused herself to consult another faculty member colleague. She returned to ask if our daughter had been playing near weeds. (We didn’t exactly exhibit the South of Broad profile, obviously.) Yes, indeed, Eliza Frezil had explored some weedy areas right in front of the house that our hosts were planning on landscaping next week (she wasn’t fooled).

Eureka! That was the right answer! After telling her eye specialist friend the physical sign of an extremely dilated pupil with no neurological abnormalities in any shape or form (Eliza Frezil was on a roll after all this attention and still involved in displays of agility and grace in the examining room), they felt pretty certain she had gotten pollen from horse nettle, a very weedy member of the family Solanacaea, which contains small amounts of opium like compounds that cause the pupil to dilate. Women of old used the European cousin of our weedy tomato family member, Atropa belladonna, to intentionally get those bedroom eyes; belladonna is Italian for beautiful lady.

With great relief, we left the doctor’s and retired to one of those lovely downtown restaurants where our precious child ordered fried oysters and Helen and I made a selection form the more adult end of the menu. 

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