Worm-weed (Chenopodium ambrosioides, L.)

In both Black Roadways and “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith noted that Worm-weed (AKA “See-me-contract”/ “Semi contrac”) was used to drive duppies away. This could be done by either rubbing the leaves on your body or scattering them about your house.

Beckwith also referred to the plant’s medicinal usage in the treatment for intestinal worms citing an eighteenth century physician, Patrick Browne:

“Browne uses ‘worm-weed’… to produce an effect like opium… After such a dose he gives an ordinary purge, after which the worms are discharged… Such experiences… may account for the belief in the removal of animals from a patient’s body into a bottle which forms so common a practice in obeah today”.

This idea of worm-weed as a vermifuge appears in modern Jamaican folk medicine. Its emetic and anti-inflammatory properties are also used in remedies for arthritis, constipation and worms.

Would the plant’s purgative qualities have influenced ideas that it could also dispel evil spirits?


Next time…

How to remove lizards if they become stuck in your arm.



Image – drawing of worm-weed © H. R. Sparkes

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. 26, 30.

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. 94.

Patrick Browne, The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica (London, 1789), p. 156 cited in Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, p. 30.

Arvilla Payne-Jackson, and Mervyn C. Alleyne, Jamaican Folk Medicine: A Source of Healing (Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 2004), pp. 168, 150, 154.



The use of cotton trees in African-Jamaican folk religions

As mentioned in previous posts the cotton tree had the reputation for both being the abode of spirits and as a sacred plant. These two strands came together in the use of cotton trees in Myal spiritual practices. In Black Roadways, Martha Warren Beckwith based some of her description of Myal on an account written by an African-Jamaican clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Banbury in the late nineteenth century. Here Banbury described how Myalists (or Mialists as he called them) caught shadows which been trapped by duppies in the cotton trees:

We now give an account of the shadow-catching. This is invariably done at night… The person suspected of having lost his shadow was taken to the cotton tree where it was spell bound, or to which it was “nailed”, as the people expressed it. The mialmen were accompanied thither by a large concourse of people. The victim was dressed in white, with a white kerchief about his head. Eggs and fowls were taken along with cooked food to the cotton tree. The mialmen paraded up and down before the tree, with white cloths over their shoulders; and all the people joining in the chorus. Alternatively the cotton tree was pelted with eggs, and the necks of fowls rung off, and their bodies cast at it. This was done to propitiate the “deaths,” or “duppies” that had the shadow enthralled at the trees, the song and dancing proceeded more vigorously as the shadow began to make signs of leaving the tree. A white basin, with water to receive it, was held up; after they had sung, yelled and danced to their hearts’ content, they all of a sudden caught up the person, and ran home, with him, affirming that the shadow was caught, covered up in a basin. Upon reaching home a cloth was wet in the water, and applied to the head of the patient and the shadow was said to be restored. This is the process of shadow-catching… Many shadows were caught in this way on the sugar estates, and pens in St. James, Hanover, Westmoreland, &c.’

A more basic method to summon duppies was for Myalists to ‘form a circle about the tree and each one beat the earth with a stone in rhythm to a song’.


Beckwith also gathered information about the use of cotton trees in Myal religion from contemporary African-Jamaicans. One of her informants, a Maroon Myal man named James White, said that only those cotton trees which had been planted on top of a grave had a significance in Myal: ‘Such trees [were] called “worship cotton trees” and may well be regarded as tombs of the dead.’

Another informant, George Parkes, described how, ‘when a Myal Man sets a duppy, he goes alone to a cottonwood with an offering of rice, chicken, and rum, and cuts marks on the tree with his machete or pocketknife in the shape of circles of crosses which he alone can interpret; then he beats one stone upon another and sings “in an unknown tongue”.’

Parkes’s information is interesting as he describes the Myal person as working alone. Many depictions of Myal from the 18th century onwards tend to stress its communal nature – as illustrated by the example of shadow-catching described by Banbury above. However, Myal as a solitary practice also took place in early twentieth century Jamaica, as Elmira Barrows, a former Myalist, also told Beckwith that some Myal leaders worked alone at cotton trees, dancing, singing and drumming around the tree in order to dislodge spirits.

Barrows gave Beckwith an account of how these methods were used by a Myalman from St. Mary named Fifee Bogle. A duppie called Bomshee had been plaguing a young woman. Fifee Bogle stood drumming and singing under the cotton tree which contained Bomshee: ‘Then Bomshee came down from the tree. Bogle caught him.’ And the young woman was freed from her tormenter.


Next time…

I’ll be temporarily abandoning Beckwith’s plant odyssey and head back to the world of spirits to look at duppies, shadows and souls.



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. 23.

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), pp. 145-48.

Bamboo (bambusa vulgaris)

This month’s featured plant is Bamboo (bambusa vulgaris).


Beckwith wrote that duppies lived ‘in the roots of… bamboo thickets and feed upon bamboo root.’

In her earlier work on Jamaican proverbs, Martha had noted that a particularly fearsome type of duppy, the rolling calf, was reputed to lurk in ‘bamboo thickets’ as well as in ‘the roots of silk cotton trees, and empty sugar houses.’

Uses in housing

As an aside, Bamboo didn’t just provide housing for duppies. Jamaicans also used it as a building material for their abodes.

Beckwith described the house of one of her informants, Wilfred Bonito as being ‘built out of seasoned bamboo cut when it was partly ripe and would harden, not rot, with age. He set up a frame and tied the poles firmly together… then wattled the sides closely with strips of bamboo and plastered the whole, outside and in, with a mixture of red earth and wood ashes, smoothing it neatly and whitewashing the surface.’

Next time

More on the habitats of duppies….



Picture credit: Bamboo in the rainforest of Dominica W.I.By © Hans Hillewaert /, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6288711

Beckwith, Martha Warren, 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), pp. 89; 8.

Beckwith, Martha Warren, “Jamaica Proverbs”, Beckwith, Martha Warren, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 14.




Rosemary (Croton Linearis Jacq.)

I thought this topic would suitable for December as the 20th of the month is, according to British folk lore, a time when the veil between the material and the spirit worlds is permeable. With that in mind, here’s a little something from Martha Beckwith’s Jamaican plant lore which may help keep unwanted visitors (of a spiritual nature) at bay.

Beckwith wrote that:

Rosemary, sometimes mixed with cow dung, was burned in a house to drive away duppies ‘or sprigs of it are rubbed over the body or scattered about the house for the same purpose.’

She was told by her informants that ‘”White people also use it”’.

Beckwith attributed the use of Rosemary to protect a person from malign influences was attributable to the plant’s strong smell as other plants with a pungent odour were used for similar purposes in Jamaica.

In British plant lore rosemary also can protect from spiritual and physical ills. For example, Margaret Baker notes that in parts of Devon people believed that planting a rosemary bush near a house would cleanse the house of evil and could keep witches out. Drinking from a spoon made from rosemary was supposed to protect one from poison.

In Britain there are Christian spiritual associations with rosemary – associations which may have travelled to Jamaica and played a part in its usage to repel malevolent forces. The plant’s blue flowers were once believed to have been white until, during the flight into Egypt, the Virgin Mary placed the infant Jesus’s clothes on a rosemary bush to dry. An alternate version holds that she lay her cloak upon it. In British plant lore, rosemary is believed to flower at midnight on Christmas Eve.

The caveat here is that in British rosemary is Rosmarinus officinalis whereas Jamaican rosemary is Croton linearis Jacq., a type of euphorbia. However, as both plants are similar in appearance, British settlers in Jamaica may have named Croton linearis Jacq. after a plant theory were familiar with. Therefore, it may not be impossible that the British spiritual associations with Rosmarinus officinalis were also applied to the Jamaican rosemary?



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. 94.

Martha Warren Beckwith,, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), pp. 26, 27.

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 132-133.



Duppy Pumpkins

As it’s only a month away from Hallowe’en, I thought that something pumpkin-related would be appropriate for this month’s entry. So here’s Martha Beckwith’s notes on the Duppy Pumpkin:

Beckwith provides two instances of the duppy pumpkin’s association with the spirit world and magical beliefs. Firstly, in Black Roadways, she noted that duppies were believed to feed upon its “gourd-like fruit”.

In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, the duppy pumpkin is listed as a cure for a stiff neck. The cure it seems is more in the realm of sympathetic magic, of like attracting like, than of a traditional herbal remedy (i.e. the plant being used in a bath or poultice or being consumed).

The person with the stiff neck was instructed to the wind the pumpkin vine around his or her neck. If anyone asked why the vine was wrapped around their neck, the sufferer should break off one of the pumpkin’s pods and throw them at the questioner who would then develop a stiff neck themselves. Beckwith presumed that this method transferred the neck problem from the first sufferer to the other person.

Slightly different duppie pumpkin beliefs were noted by the American folklorist, MacEdward Leach in “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”. He mentions that duppies also liked to play with duppie pumpkins and that planting them brought the grower good luck. He doesn’t mention which of plants he is referring to. In Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English any plant pumpkin-related in appearance was given the name “duppy pumpkin”.

However, Beckwith is fairly specific about the type of plant that she referred to. Her duppy pumpkin is a type of Cayaponia, a member of the Curcubitaceae family which includes gourds, pumpkins, cumbers, and squashes. Beckwith doesn’t expand on the full Latin name and there are a number of different varieties of Cayaponia in the Caribbean.

The Common Names database of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/ has a number of plants which have the common name of “duppy pumpkin” . However, the only one which is a Cayaponia is Cayaponia racemose so could this be Beckwith’s duppy pumpkin?

entry #2 - duppy pumpkin


Next time – as we approach St Thomas’s Eve, 20th December, a time when the veil between this world and the spirit world thins, something which may keep unwanted ethereal visitors at bay…


Sources: 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. 89.

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.

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

MacEdward Leach, “Folklore of Jamaica: A Survey”, Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde = Archives suisses des traditions populaires, vol. 59, (1963), pp. 59-81.

Introduction: Martha Warren Beckwith and Jamaican plant lore

The focus of this blog is the Jamaican plant lore, especially that which was associated with the spirit world, recorded by the American anthropologist and folklorist Martha Warren Beckwith in the 1920s. The idea arose out of my PhD thesis, “Shadow Worlds and “Superstitions”: An Analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith’s writings on Jamaican Folk Religion, 1919-1929”. I have a fascination with the folklore surrounding plants and during my research into Beckwith and her contemporaries’ writings on Jamaican folk religions I became aware of not only how flora was utilised in Jamaican folk medicine but also that some plants had strong associations with the spirit realm and religious practises.

Some background… In 1919, Martha Beckwith visited Jamaica for the first time, making 3 subsequent visits. Her aim was to investigate the folk life of the African-Jamaican peasantry. As part of her fieldwork, Beckwith made a list of plants used for healing and protection. “Healing” here encompasses not only curing physiological illnesses but also methods of preventing duppies or other malevolent spirits causing physical or psychological harm. Beckwith’s list of Jamaican plants formed part of an article, “Notes on Jamaica Ethnobotany” (1927) but other plant lore can be found in Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaican Folk Life (1929), the book which was the culmination of Beckwith’s Jamaican research.

Coming up in future posts… a useful tip for those nervous about unexpected “visitors” on Halloween (and I don’t mean Trick or Treaters), how to ensure that the dead and buried stay dead and buried, and just who is living in that clump of bamboo?