Guinea weed (Petiveria alliacea L.)

The plant Martha Warren Beckwith described as Guinea Weed, more commonly known as Guinea Hen Weed or Strong Man’s Weed (Petiveria alliacea L.), is yet another plant with a strong odour used for its anti-duppy properties. Two of her African-Jamaican informants, Forbes and Wilfred, told Beckwith that Guinea Hen Weed leaves should be rubbed over the body and scattered about rooms to keep duppies at bay. She was also told that Guinea Hen Weed was used in this way to get rid of headaches and fever. Peart, another of Beckwith’s informants, said that it could be sniffed when one had a cold.




In “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, the authors note that Guinea Hen Weed has “a strong smell of garlic and… contains mustard oil” which would explain why it was used to clear head colds.

 Next time…. why the physic nut tree bleeds on Good Friday.



Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 18.

G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton, “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, pt 2, West Indian Medical Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (1954) accessed via

Picture credits: Petiveria alliacaea by Dick Culbert –



ADDENDUM: St Veronica

Looking for plant lore which linked Germander Speedwell with the Devil for last month’s post, I came across the decidedly unsatanic legend that the Speedwell’s flowers resembled an image of Christ’s face (or at least his eyes) which had been imprinted on to St Veronica’s handkerchief, or veil. As someone fascinated by the lives of the early saints, this story intrigued me, so here is a brief addendum to that post.


st veronica aiding christ

St Veronica witnessed Jesus being taken to Calvary to be crucified. She offered him her veil to wipe the sweat from his face. His image became imprinted on the fabric. Legend has it that she later travelled to Rome taking the veil with her where it became a venerated object akin to the Turin Shroud.

In other legends, Veronica is believed to have travelled to France instead of Italy. For example, “The Catholic Encyclopedia” cites a legend that Veronica brought relics of the Virgin Mary to Bordeaux, where she preached until her death. She is believed to be buried either at Soulac or in the Church of St Seurin in Bordeaux.


It is unlikely whether Veronica was the woman’s name who showed Christ compassion and there is no reference to her in the canonical Bible. However, the Cambridge Dominicans website states that at times she has been associated with the woman who Jesus cured during an earlier part of his ministry – an event reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels:

“There was a woman who had suffered terribly from severe bleeding for twelve years, even though she had been treated by many doctors…. She had heard about Jesus so she came in the crowd behind him, saying to herself, ‘If I can touch his clothes, I will get well’. She touched his cloak and the bleeding stopped at once, and she had the feeling inside herself that she was healed of her trouble“ (The Gospel of St Mark, 5: 25- 30)


Next time… back on track for Guinea weed’s protective properties.


Sources (in order of appearance in the text)

“The Catholic Encyclopaedia” –

As well as information about the story of St Veronica, this web page also looks at the significance for Veronica for today’s Christians –

Good News Bible: Today’s English Version (London: Collins/Fontana, 1976), p. 52.

Image credits: Germander Speedwell by Simon Noel (private collection)

19th century Stations of the Cross image of Verona offering her veil to Christ by Andreas Praefcke –




The Devil in the meadow: the Satanic associations of Warwickshire’s flora


This month’s post is another of my occasional transatlantic ‘diversions’. The plant, or rather, plants I’m featuring take the devilish theme to the other side of the Atlantic, to the county of Warwickshire, England.

As with some Jamaican plants, a number of British plants are called after, or have associations with the Devil. For example, in the Folklore of Warwickshire (2004), Roy Palmer lists “Naughty Man’s (or Cow) Parsley, Naughty Man’s Plaything (Shepherd’s Purse), and Devil’s Nightcap (Hedge Parsley)”. It may seem a bit strange that a being as heinous as the Devil could be described ‘Naughty’. However, in past centuries in England the word naughty meant ‘wicked’ rather than the more innocuous connotation that it has today.

I’d always been of the assumption that blue plants were linked with the Virgin Mary. However, in the Warwickshire countryside, they take on a more sinister aspect. Writing on Warwickshire plant lore in 1929, J. Harvey Bloom stated that: “All blue flowers are Devil’s flowers and unlucky especially the Germander Speedwell.” He went on to say that “Love-in-the-Mist is also called Devil-in-a-Bush… ”

However, rather than the colour of its petals, there is a more obvious ‘explanation’ to Love-in-the-Mist’s Satanic connections. The seed head with its little “horns” makes its alternative name of Devil-in-a-Bush apparent.


Although purple rather than blue in colour, another flower fitting in with the theme of British plants that are associated with Satan is the Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis). Much like Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and Love-in-the-Mist (Nigella damascena), Devil’s Bit Scabious is a pretty plant and so links to Beelzebub aren’t the first things that spring to mind. It also has medicinal uses. However, one folkloric theory of its name which is based on the plant’s appearance provides some explanation. In Discovering the Folklore of Plants (2008), Margaret Baker writes that the Devil’s Bit Scabious got its name from “its abruptly terminating stem. The Devil, envious of the good the plant could do… took away part of the root”.


Devils’ Bit Scabious


As for the Germander Speedwell the only spiritual associations I can find for the plant (so far) is a holy one. Baker says that its flowers “are said to resemble St Veronica’s handkerchief, which was impressed with Christ’s likeness”. She also notes that speedwell is also believed to be “effective against spells”.

Compton Verney May 2018 011
germander speedwell


Next time…. It’s back to Jamaica for the duppy-scaring properties of Guinea weed.



Sources in order of appearance in the text

Roy Palmer Folklore of Warwickshire (revised edn, Stroud; Tempus Publishing Limited, 2004; orig. edn, London: Batsford, 1976), p. 117.

J. Harvey Bloom, Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare’s Land (London: Mitchell Hughes and Clarke, 1929), p. 148.

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), p. 141.

Image credits: Germander Speedwell by Simon Noel (private collection)

Love-in the-Mist by Annie Spratt –

Devil’s Bit Scabious by Philip –








Devil’s Backbone (Centrostachys aspera)

This month’s featured plant, Devil’s Backbone (Centrostachys aspera), aka Devil’s Horsewhip, is associated with the spirit world in name only. I’m guessing that the name is based on the plant’s appearance. It is described by Cassidy and Le Page in the Dictionary of Jamaican English as having “sharp burs… along a whip-like flowering stalk”.



What’s in a name?

Martha Warren Beckwith gave the Latin name for Devil’s Backbone as Centrostachys aspera but more modern sources such as the Natural History Museum of Jamaica Common Names Database  and the Dictionary of Jamaican English classify it as Achyranthes aspera or Achyranthes indica. As the Latin names for plants change periodically, I’m guessing it may have altered since Beckwith’s day.

However Devils Backbone/Horsewhip is classified, the usage of Centrostachys aspera and Achyranthes aspera in Jamaican folk medicine is very similar. In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Beckwith described it being boiled to make a tea to drink to treat colds and an early 20th century list of Jamaican medicinal plants by Morris Steggarda included Devil’s Backbone as a treatment for colic. More modern accounts, such as the LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Herbs & Medicinal Plants, also state that the plant is used as a remedy for colds, colic and venereal disease.

Next time…. Continuing my devilish theme, I’m heading to the other side of the Atlantic to check out some British plants associated with Beelzebub.


Sources (in order of appearance in text)

F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 148.

Natural History Museum of Jamaica Common Names Database:

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 16.

Morris Steggarda, “Plants of Jamaica Used by Natives for Medicinal Purposes”, American Anthropologist, New Series, vol. 31, no. 3 (Jul – Sept., 1929), pp. 431-434, p. 432.

L. Mike Henry and K. Sean Harris, The LMH Official Dictionary of Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants and Their Uses (Kingston: Jamaica, LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 17.

Image credits: Achyranthes aspera by Kurt Stüber: https://commons,

Ruth Landes & The City of Women

For International Women’s Day this post celebrates another American Boasian-trained anthropologist who researched in the field of African-American and African-Caribbean belief systems in the early- to mid- 20th century.

Ruth Landes (1908-1991) undertook research into Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil, between 1938 and 1939. Candomblé is one of a number of religions which originated amongst enslaved Africans in Brazil that combine elements of African and Roman Catholic spirituality. It is a possession religion whereby adepts are possessed by spirits, the orixás.

Landes’ experiences are detailed in her book, The City of Women, first published in 1947. Here, she recorded accounts of visiting Candomblé places of worship, participating in ceremonies and interviewing members of the faith.


blog pics 002

At the time Landes was conducting her fieldwork, there were possibly as many as 150 Candomblé meeting places (terreiros) in Bahia, each with its own religious leader, pantheon of spirits and spirit mediums (filhas de santo). Most of the Bahian terreiros were led by women and the filhas de santo were also mainly female.

Ruth Landes paid special attention to women’s participation within Candomblé. This stance led to criticism from one reviewer, the renowned anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who argued that she had neglected the importance of men’s roles in the faith and put too much emphasis on homosexuality amongst some of its male priests.

He also disagreed with Landes’ view on the origins of Candomblé. In her introduction to the 1994 edition of The City of Women, Sally Cole argues that Herskovits, as an Africanist, felt that Landes underplayed the African elements of Candomblé. In Landes’ opinion, although Candomblé had African influences, rather than being a survival of an African religion in the New World, it was “new living Brazilian religion” which had developed out of a set of particular circumstances and mix of cultures in Bahia.

Much like Zora Neale Hurston Landes used the technique of mixing ethnography with autobiography in her writing. This too drew criticism from contemporary reviewers. As Kamala Visweswaran points out, because of this mixing of styles both women’s works were “dismissed for not being ‘proper ethnography”.

The idea, in the early 20th century, of an anthropologist considering their own background in relation to the people they were studying was unusual at the time. Nowadays, anthropologists, especially those working in the postcolonial and feminist arena, acknowledge how forward thinking Landes’ work was, not only through her use of autobiography to situate herself (a white, Jewish woman) in the text but also in her emphasis on “race and gender”.


In many ways, Ruth Landes’ concluding statement in The City of Women sums up the book and additionally provides an apt thought for this International Women’s Day. When discussing with Brazilian friends what she’d tell those back in the USA about her experiences in Bahia, she replied, “I’ll tell them about the women. I think they make Brazil great”.


Next time… I investigate the Devil’s Backbone (in the ethnobotanical rather than the chiropractic sense).


Sources (in order of appearance in text)

Ruth Landes, The City of Women (with an introduction by Sally Cole, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994, reprint of orig. edn, New York: Macmillan, 1947), pp. ix –xxv, 148.

Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis & London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994), p. 7.

Image credits: picture of the cover of The City of Women by H.R. Sparkes

Portrait of Ruth Landes – author unknown –


The Mammy Plant

This month’s post features the mysterious Mammy Plant. I use the word ‘mysterious’ here for more than just dramatic effect…

As regular (and not so regular) readers of Nature and Supernatural Nature will know this blog examines the spiritual folklore surrounding Jamaican plants mentioned in the writings of the anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith. When Beckwith wrote about the Mammy Plant she said she didn’t know exactly what kind of plant it was but if a person sowed its seed “a relative will die”. She attributed her information to an article In Folk-lore by Frank Cundall, secretary and librarian of the Institute of Jamaica from 1891 to 1937, who collected examples of Jamaican folk culture.


Beckwith misquoted Cundall. In his article he actually stated that:

If you plant the seed of a plant called ‘mamy’ you will die” [my emphasis]

So three main questions arise – exactly what is the plant that Beckwith referred to, who exactly is it supposed to kill and by what means?

In the Dictionary of Jamaican English (a recommended read for anyone interested in the folklore of Jamaican plants), F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page write that the origins of the Mammy Plant are “uncertain” but speculate that it may be the “Mammee tree”, Mammea americana.



The Mammea americana is a fruit-bearing tree native to the West Indies and parts of South America. Julia F. Morton in Fruits of Warm Climates (1987) describes it as being similar to “a southern magnolia”. Where the Mammea americana may have links with Beckwith’s “killer” Mammy Plant is in its toxicity.

Morton states that if the usually sweet fruit are of “poor quality” they have a very sour taste. To stop the bitterness, in parts of the Caribbean the fruit is soaked in salted water or wine. For some people the fruit can cause stomach upsets. There have also been reports of the fruit being poisonous to humans and small animals.

Morton goes on to mention that, as well as its fruit, other parts of Mammea americana are toxic. At times this toxicity has been utilised as an insecticide and for medicinal purposes; for example, to treat chiggers and head lice.

Could the belief reported by Beckwith and Cundall, that the Mammy Plant has the propensity to kill people, have its origins in the plant’s sour taste and toxic properties?

Or, to go down a more ominous route, does the plant actually possess a preternatural “power” which results in the deaths of either the cultivator or one of his or her relatives?

I’ll let you decide.


NB: I realise the qualities of the Mammy Plant fall into the “sinister” rather than “spiritual” category which is the usual focus for this blog. However, the chance to play plant detective kind of appealed.

Next time…. I celebrate International Women’s Day with a post about anthropologist Ruth Landes and her work on candomblé.


Sources (in order of appearance in text)

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 148, pp. 212-213, p. 87.

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), 94.

F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 290.

Image credits: picture by Sven Volkens – /File%3AMammea_americana1.jpg

Julia F. Morton, Fruits of Warm Climates (Miami: J.F. Morton, 1987), pp. 304-307.

The River Mumma: Part 2 – an African connection?

Last month’s post concerned the Jamaican water spirit, the River Mumma. This month I’m looking at where her origins may lie.

Some late 19th and early 20th century commentators on African-Jamaican folk culture such as Martha Warren Beckwith and Thomas Banbury, described the River Mumma as being a type of mermaid. There could well be some truth in this as Jamaican folk culture contained a number of British or Irish influences. Northern European mermen and mermaids were part fish, part human creatures. Mermaids were commonly described as having long hair, which, like the River Mumma, they spent hours combing. Also like the River Mumma, they could be generous to humans. Similarly, like the River Mumma, at times they were feared. Folklore writer Marc Alexander notes that sailors, in particular, viewed mermaids “as harbingers of misfortune”.

Aside from mermaids, other types of female spirit are connected with bodies of water in British folklore. In an examination of British hauntings from the Early Modern period to the present day, historian Owen Davies gives examples of links between female ghosts and rivers, lakes, and ponds. For instance, spirits described as White Ladies are associated with “deep pools and other watery places”. Although some White Ladies are believed to be the spirits of drowned women, others, such as one Shropshire White lady who “lived in a pool and would come out and dance on the green at night”. This is more akin to fairy lore rather than ghost traditions.

So there is a strong argument that the River Mumma may have British or Irish origins.

However, not all writers on African-Jamaican folk beliefs agreed with the idea that the River Mumma had her roots in the concept of the European mermaid. The American anthropologist Joseph John Williams  argued instead that her origins lay in the Ashanti belief in “the divine origin of water”.

Aside from the Ashanti, other African peoples, such as the Ifa and the Yoruba attributed deities or important spirits to bodies of water; spirits which have to be propitiated by the people using the water of those seas, rivers, streams and lakes. Yoruban water goddesses include Yemoja/ Yemanji, Ọbà and Oshun. Yemoja is often depicted as a mermaid.



Although Thomas Banbury believed that the River Mumma arose originally from the idea of the “mermaid or water nymph of England”, he went on to mention that during the era of slavery in Jamaica that sacrifices were made to her:

“It is a well-known fact that the slaves on water-works used to persuade their overseers or masters, to sacrifice an ox at the fountain-head of the water turning the mill in times of much drought, in order to propitiate the mistress of the river, that she may cause rain and give an adequate supply of water to turn the mill. It is said a bullock was yearly killed on some sugar estates at such places for this purpose.”

So far I’ve yet to find any examples of sacrifices being offered to mermaids in British folklore. And the sacrificial offerings which appeared in Banbury’s account fits more with the idea of the River Mumma as a powerful goddess who must be propitiated than with the coquette-ish European mermaid. So whilst the River Mumma may contain elements of British mermaid lore, I feel that her roots lie more in Africa than in Europe.

Next time….
Back to terra firma with a look at the mysterious Mammy plant.


Sources (in order of appearance in post)
Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 101.
Rev. Thomas Banbury, Jamaica Superstitions; or the Obeah Book: A Complete Treatise of the Absurdities Believed in by the People of the Island (Kingston: Mortimer Co. De Souza, 1894), p. 35, cited in Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica, pp. 172, 173.
Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 2002), p. 193.
Owen Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 23.
L.H. Hayward, “Shropshire Folklore of Yesterday and To-Day”, Folklore vol. 49, (1938),s p. 239, cited in Davies, The Haunted, p. 22.
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934), p. 173.
Image credits: An Irish mermaid by Trounce
Image credits: Yemoja by Abayomi Barber