The God Wood Tree (Bursera simaruba)

AKA Birch Gum, Red Birch, West Indian Birch, Turpentine Tree, Incense Tree and Gumbo Limbo.

I first came across the plant featured in this month’s post in Tell My Horse (1938), Zora Neale Hurston’s account of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti. Whilst visiting the Maroon town of Accompong, Hurston was introduced to someone she described as their “chief medicine man”. He took Hurston to visit the God Wood tree which she wrote was so-called because it was “the first tree that ever was made. It is the original tree of good and evil.”

The medicine man (Hurston doesn’t name him) then performed a ritual to stop his enemies from attacking him. In Hurston’s words:

 “He took a strong nail and a hammer with him and drove a nail into the tree up to the head with three strokes, dropped the hammer and walked away rapidly without looking back.”

Unfortunately, the reader is left wondering if his methods were effective or not as all Hurston wrote of the outcome was that she was sent to bring his hammer back!

However, as Hurston went on to recount other successful examples of the medicine man’s healing techniques and manipulation of the natural world, maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the efficacy of his tree ritual.

god wood tree



Who was the medicine man?

As Hurston’s account indicates, the medicine man had powers beyond the role of a doctor treating physical ailments. James White, another Maroon medicine man with similar powers was one of the American anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith’s informants.  I mentioned in the earlier post on “How to Remove Lizards If They Become Stuck In Your Arm”  that White not only had   “reputation for knowledge of herb medicines” but also “of songs to raise the dead”.

The powers Beckwith and Hurston ascribed to the medicine men they encountered fit very much with those of Maroon fete-man described by the anthropologist Kenneth Bilby in his book, True-Born Maroons. To quote Bilby the fete-man is ‘a Kromanti ritual specialist and healer’ and a “spiritual warrior” with an expert knowledge of the local flora or “weeds”. The fete-man would lead Kromanti Play, a ceremony which involved dancing, drumming and possession by the spirits. In his role as a “spiritual warrior”, he would manipulate spirits to fight those manipulated by another spirit worker”. Therefore I’m guessing both White and Hurston’s anonymous medicine man were fete-men – although I’m not sure which term Maroons themselves (i.e. fete-man, medicine man, or both?) would have used in the era when both women were doing their Jamaican fieldwork.

Next time…. after a Halloween interlude (warning – may contain duppy lore), I’ll be further investigating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.



Sources (in order of appearance in the text)

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. 25, 27, 29-30.

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. 4, 49.

Kenneth M. Bilby, True-Born Maroons (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), pp. 289, 111.

Image credits: photograph of Busera simaruba by Louise Wolff (darina):


Jesus tree that bled: more trees associated with the Crucifixion

During the course of researching the physic nut or Jatropha curcas, I came across a couple of other trees associated with Christ’s crucifixion. Firstly, there is the European Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). The blog, God as a Gardener, says of this plant that:

” Many individuals believe that the cross on which Christ was crucified was from a dogwood tree. They associate the dark spot on each petal of the dogwood flower with the wounds on his hands and feet.”




The second tree is the elder (Sambucus nigra). There is a belief in Britain that Christ’s cross was made from elder wood. Possibly because of this connection elders were also used for protection. In Discovering The Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker writes how an elder tree planted by the door of a house shielded “the household from witchcraft, evil and lightning and promoted fertility”. She also mentions that an elder tree growing sturdily on a grave was regarded as good sign as it meant that the grave’s occupant was happy and “would not walk.”

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Conversely, in some parts of Britain, the elder has more negative associations. Particularly the West Country, there is a legend that the elder was the tree from which Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus to the authorities. Baker notes how in Dorset, the elder was called “God’s stinking tree” and was actually banned from domestic use. However, she doesn’t mention exactly when such a ban took place.

In my home county of Warwickshire, the elder is linked with the Devil himself. J. Harvey Bloom, writing on local plant lore in the 1920s noted a belief that if the elder tree were used for firewood not only would the fire not burn but the Devil would sit on the chimney pot. Fifty years later, C.S. Wharton who also collected Warwickshire folklore was told by an informant that “The elder tree is generally thought to be the tree of evil and is associated with the powers of darkness.”

There is also a belief in Warwickshire that the elder tree can bleed. Just as the physic nut tree bleeds on Good Friday, the elder tree bleeds on a specific day: June 23th – Midsummer’s Eve. However, unlike the lore surrounding the physic nut, these elder beliefs are linked to one specific tree and are far from Christian.

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The elder tree in question is the one growing (or believed to have grown) at the prehistoric Rollrights Stone circle which lies on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Here a witch was supposed to have turned herself into an elder. In a 19th-century article on the Rollright Stones, its author, Arthur Evans was told by one local informant that the fact that the tree bled when its bark was pierced was proof that it once had been a witch. However, exactly which tree is the witch is hard to say as Evans mentioned there was some dispute about its exact location and elder trees grow in abundance in the area.


Next time…. a brief look at the legend of the Rollrights’ witch and then back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree.


Sources (in order of first appearance in text)

God as a Gardener blog edited by Carolyn Roth –

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 52-54

J. Harvey Bloom, Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare’s Land (London: Mitchell Hughes and Clarke, 1929), p. 148

C.S. Wharton, “The Folklore of South Warwickshire” (self-published thesis or dissertation, 1974), p. 34.

Arthur J. Evans, ”The Rollright Stones and Their Folk-lore” in the journal Folklore, vol. 6, no. 1 (Mar., 1895), pp. 6-53, p. 20.

Image credits: Picture of dogwood by Colin Smith –,

Image credits: Elder tree and the Rollright Stones courtesy of Simon Noel


Guinea weed (Petiveria alliacea L.)

The plant Martha Warren Beckwith described as Guinea Weed, more commonly known as Guinea Hen Weed or Strong Man’s Weed (Petiveria alliacea L.), is yet another plant with a strong odour used for its anti-duppy properties. Two of her African-Jamaican informants, Forbes and Wilfred, told Beckwith that Guinea Hen Weed leaves should be rubbed over the body and scattered about rooms to keep duppies at bay. She was also told that Guinea Hen Weed was used in this way to get rid of headaches and fever. Peart, another of Beckwith’s informants, said that it could be sniffed when one had a cold.




In “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, the authors note that Guinea Hen Weed has “a strong smell of garlic and… contains mustard oil” which would explain why it was used to clear head colds.

 Next time…. why the physic nut tree bleeds on Good Friday.



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. 18.

G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton, “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, pt 2, West Indian Medical Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (1954) accessed via

Picture credits: Petiveria alliacaea by Dick Culbert –