Water Weed (Medilia gracilis)

Water weed (medilia gracilis) the star of this month’s post continues the theme of Jamaican plants being utilised to keep away unwanted spirits. In her listings of Jamaican flora, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote that water weed was a type of water marigold “commonly used at night when something seems to be abroad in the house”. It could be burned or mixed with rum and “kept in a bottle to rub the face and especially the back of the neck”.

Water weed was also employed to prevent the duppy of the deceased mooching around their former dwelling place if they had died in there. In such instances, Beckwith was told by her Jamaican informants that water weed should be burned “to run away the spirits”.

Unlike a number of Jamaican plants used to keep duppies at bay such as rosemary  and spirit weed , Beckwith reported that water weed didn’t have a strong odour. However, she speculated it may smell more pungent when burned.



Next time….
The aquatic theme continues but this time we move away from plant life to investigate the mysterious River Mumma.



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. 22.

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.

Haunted house image by H.R. Sparkes



Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

As mentioned previously, this month’s post is taking a little holiday from Jamaican plant lore. Instead I pay a visit to my native Warwickshire to look at some sinister beliefs surrounding parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Just as a number of Jamaican plants have associations with the more negative spectrum of the spirit world, parsley too has links with a harmful entity. In fact, with the most negative spirit himself (in Christian belief at least), the Devil.

The folklore scholar C.S. Wharton found that in South Warwickshire it was held that “Only wicked people can make parsley grow” and that parsley goes down to hell and returns up again through the earth nine times.

The association of parsley with the Devil seems countrywide in England. A common theme is that it has to be planted on Good Friday, particularly between the hours of twelve and 3 pm, the time of Christ’s crucifixion, as during this period the Devil “is powerless and preoccupied”. Other cultivation tips linking parsley with Old Nick include pouring boiling water on the ground to “deter Satan” and having to plant three lots of seed: “one for the gardener and two for the Devil”.

Why does parsley have these associations with Beelzebub? One reason may be that the plant can be difficult to germinate. The fact that parsley seeds lie in the ground a long time before showing any sign of life may have resulted in the belief that it had burrowed down to visit Satan in his realm deep in the bowels of the earth.

Another reason could be the influence of the Classical belief that parsley is an unlucky plant associated with death. In Greek legend parsley first grew from the blood of the young son of King Lycurgus. The child, Archemorus, whose name means ‘the forerunner of death’, was killed by a snake whilst his nurse was distracted. In Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margret Baker notes how the ancient Greeks and Romans adorned tombs with parsley and “wreaths were worn by victors of the funeral games” held to commemorate the dead.

Parsley was introduced into Britain from the Mediterranean so its unlucky reputation may have travelled here along with the original plants.

For this post I’ve used information from the books mentioned below in the Sources section. However I’ve since come across a fascinating blog on the cultural links between food and death. So if parsley’s associations with death have been of interest, I’d recommend a peek at “Nourishing Death” – https://nourishingdeath.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/parsley-the-herb-of-death/

Next time….
It’s a return to Beckwith’s Jamaican plant lists and, as it’s the run up to Hallowe’en it’s got to be something ghost-related. so I’ll be looking at how Spirit Weed can help stop bothersome beings.

Sources (in order of appearance in entry)
C.S. Wharton, “The Folklore of South Warwickshire” (self-published thesis or dissertation, 1974), p. 33.
R.L. Tongue, “Folk –Song and Folklore”, Folklore, vol. 78, no. 4 (1967), pp. 293-303, p. 295.
Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), p. 118
Richard Mabey, Food for Free (reprint, London: Collins, 2007, of orig. edn, London: Collins, 1972), p. 143.
Image credits: no attribution given – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AParsley.jpg




The calabash (Crescentia Cujete L.)

Here’s another plant associated with African-Jamaican burial customs as well as ghosts.

Martha Warren Beckwith was told by Wilfred, one of her informants that calabash trees were planted at the head and foot of a grave to mark it but he would ‘not admit that their presence had any significance’.

However, Beckwith heard that in Westmoreland graves were beaten three times with ‘calabash switches’ as part of a ritual to raise the ghost of the dead to do one’s bidding.


Zora Neale Hurston details this ritual in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938). In order to summon the ghost of its occupant, rum and money were first thrown on a grave and then it was beaten with the calabash stick.

Hurston also witnessed the strange behaviour of a calabash full of water at a Kumina ritual in St Thomas to ensure that the duppy of a dead man had reached his final resting place. The calabash, seemingly under its own volition, rose slowly to the top of the palm booth in which the ceremony was being held and then gradually descended. As bowls of water are used in some African-Caribbean religious ceremonies as portals by which spirits may enter or exit, there is a strong implication that the calabash was being moved by the spirit of the deceased.

Calabashes were also used in the process of “obeah pulling”. Writing in the 1890s, African-Jamaican clergyman Thomas Banbury described how cups made from calabashes were placed on a sick man’s skin. When they were removed, their contents were emptied into a basin along with lime juice and ashes. The latter ingredients were believed to kill any obeah that had come out of the patient’s body.


Next time…

As we hit October, I thought I’d pick something Hallowe’en related, albeit tenuously, so the next post will be looking Bat-wing.





Photograph by Franz Xaver < https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACrescentia_cujete_3.jpg&gt;

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. 75-76, 137.

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), pp. 12-13.

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), pp. 45, 55-56.