On the naming of Jamaican plants: no. 1

It’s a year since Nature and Supernatural Nature hit the internet so after a slice of birthday cake, a sip of rum and a blowing-out of candles, on to this month’s post. This entry focuses on Martha Warren Beckwith’s take on how Jamaican plants got their names

 Beckwith wrote: “Most of the local plant-names here collected are evidently English – some applied by the whites, like ‘Rosemary’, others are used to name a plant to which they bear a fancied resemblance, as in the case of ‘Dandelion’, or ‘Batchelor’s-button’… Color, or leaf-shape, or seed-pod suggest the analogy for ‘Milk-tea’, ‘Bat-wing’, ‘Rattleweed’.”

“Other names derive from the disease which they cure, such as ‘Fever-grass’, ‘Worm-weed’, ‘Snake-weed’, or ‘Consumption-weed’.”

She noted how plants with ‘duppy’ or ‘spirit’ in their name were used to ward of unwelcome entities (see duppy-pumpkin).

Some flora was named by what Beckwith described as a ”riddling form” known as “Cromanty talk”. These plants include See-me-contract and Dead-and-wake. Other plant names had more obvious links to Africa, for example, Guinea-weed. African names for children born on particular days of the week (see below) can been found in plants such as Juba-bush and Quaco-bush.


Beckwith’s list of African day names

Day                   male              female

Sunday            Quashe            Quasheba

Monday           Cudjo               Juba

Tuesday           Cubena            Benaba

Wednesday     Quaco              Cooba

Thursday         Quao               Abba

Friday              Cuffee             Fee-ba

Saturday         Quamin           Mimba


Next time….

I look at the criminal-catching properties of Broom-weed.



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), pp. 6-7

list of African days names in 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. 59



Cotton trees: the African connection

It is possible that cotton trees (ceiba) came to be associated with African-Jamaican spiritual beliefs because of the significance of the tree in West African religions. Robert Voeks notes how today it “remains one of Africa’s most sacred species”. In the Caribbean the earliest Africans would have seen the tree growing there and continued to venerate it.

In parts of Africa the cotton tree was regarded as the abode of spirits. The Victorian explorer Mary Kingsley commented how the Twi peoples of Ghana believed that Sasabonsam and duppies lived in cotton trees. Forest travellers could tell if a tree was inhabited by Sasabonsam because it had red earth around its roots. Red seems to be a colour associated with Sasabonsam as the creature/spirit was covered in long red hair. I think I need to look into what significance red as a colour has amongst African peoples i.e. does it have any specific connections with the spirit world?

A slightly different take on how the cotton tree found in the Caribbean came to have links with the spirit world appears in Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English. They believe that such associations arose because of similarities with the Akata tree which was held sacred in Ashanti religion. They don’t provide a Latin name for the Akata. However, I think it belongs to the Bombax genus, possibly Bombax buenopozense which is native to Ghana. This tree has associations with the spirit world in the form of being the abode of spirits and used as a shrine to ancestors.



Robert Voeks, “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas”, Geographical Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), p. 73.

Mary Kingsley, Kingsley, Mary, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897), p. 509.

F.G. Cassidy & R.B. Le Page, Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd edition, Barbados: University of the West Indies Press, 2002), p. 124.

James Fairhead, Svend E. Holsoe and Melissa Leach, African-American Exploration in West Africa: Four Nineteenth Century Diaries (Bloomingdale and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), p 313.