In this month’s post I’m going to be looking at the lore surrounding Madame Fate (Isotoma longiflora or Hippobroma longiflora) a member of the Campanulaceae family which grows wild in the West Indies. As well as possessing a couple of different Latin names, Madame Fate is also known as Star of Bethlehem and Star Flower. The majority of plants I feature in Nature and Supernatural Nature have connections with the spirit world. However, with Madame Fate I have to confess that I chose it mainly because I was intrigued by the name – the lore surrounding the plant fits more in to the category of magic than spirituality.
Wilfred, one of Martha Warren Beckwith’s African-Jamaican interviewees, told the anthropologist that Madame Fate, used in conjunction with Apimpe-grass and Bahama Grass, can stop a person from working by making them lazy. To achieve this end, strips of the three plants must be tucked into the belt of the intended target. Alternatively, the pieces should be placed at the top and bottom of the victim’s plot of land.
The folklore surrounding Madame Fate starts to get a tad more mysterious in a mention by one of Beckwith’s contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston. Whilst researching the Accompong Maroons, Hurston was informed by their spiritual leader that Madame Fate was a “cruel” plant. Hurston went on to comment that he had understated its powers Unfortunately Hurston did not elaborate why she considered it an understatement but as Hippobroma longiflora is very toxic this may have been what she was alluding to.
It’s not just the folklore concerning Madame Fate which is hard to come by. It appears that finding the plant itself can be difficult. An intriguing reference to Hippobroma longiflora appears in a 21st-century collection of Jamaican plant lore, Bush Doctor: Forgotten Folklore & Remedies from Jamaica & the Caribbean (2002). Its author, Sylvester Ayre, mentions that if you seek Madame Fate in silence you will find it, but if you call its name whilst searching, then the plant remains elusive.
Next time… I’m looking at how the far less elusive garlic can be used to both catch and disperse spirits.
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. 21.
Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (reprint, with a new foreword by Ishmael Reed, New York: Harper & Row, 1990, of orig. edn, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincourt Inc., 1938), p. 27.
Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 8.
Image credits: “Fate” photograph by H.R. Sparkes and Hippobroma longiflora photograph by Kaldari – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hippobroma_longiflora_Belize_2018_2.jpeg