Physic Nut (Jatropha curcas)

This month’s post looks at the links between the Physic Nut tree (Jatropha curcas) and Christ’s crucifixion. However, I’m starting on a more prosaic note. In “Jamaican Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith  wrote that Physic Nut was “Used generally as a purgative”. As well as being an emetic, according to the Plants for the Future website, Physic Nut has many other healing properties. Here are just a few of them:

 “The leaves … can be used to treat a wide range of medicinal conditions such as coughs, convulsions, jaundice, fevers, rheumatic pains, guinea worm sores, wounds and cuts, sores, etc. The seeds can be used as a purgative but only in small doses. Oil obtained from the seeds are used in the treatment of skin diseases and rheumatic pains. It also stimulates hair growth. The root bark is used for sores, dysentery, and jaundice.”

Plants for a Future also warn that all parts of the plant are poisonous.



Aside from its medicinal properties, the Physic Nut has strong associations in the Caribbean with Christ’s crucifixion. For example, in the book Bush Doctor which lists examples of the lore surrounding Caribbean plants, Sylvester Ayre calls the tree the Crucifixion Tree, stating that: “according to believers the red blood-like substance that oozes from the tree when cut at Easter, symbolizes the blood Christ shed on the cross, which was reputedly made of physic wood”.

When doing her Caribbean research in the early 1920s, Martha Beckwith was told of the Physic Nut tree’s propensity to bleed on Good Friday at 12 noon and one of her Pukkumerian informants who had tried this herself, said to Beckwith that the substance oozing from the wood “ really was blood’”.


Next time…. I’ll be looking at the folklore surrounding a few other trees whose wood was believed to have been used for Christ’s Cross.


Sources (in order of appearance in post)

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. 24.

“Plants for a Future”

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 10.

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. 40.

Image credits: Photograph of West African Jatropha curcas by R.K. Henning at


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 –