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: http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/
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,wikinmedia.org/wiki/File:Achyranthes_aspera0.jpg