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”.

Achyranthes_aspera0

 

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

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The Mammy Plant

This month’s post features the mysterious Mammy Plant. I use the word ‘mysterious’ here for more than just dramatic effect…

As regular (and not so regular) readers of Nature and Supernatural Nature will know this blog examines the spiritual folklore surrounding Jamaican plants mentioned in the writings of the anthropologist Martha Warren Beckwith. When Beckwith wrote about the Mammy Plant she said she didn’t know exactly what kind of plant it was but if a person sowed its seed “a relative will die”. She attributed her information to an article In Folk-lore by Frank Cundall, secretary and librarian of the Institute of Jamaica from 1891 to 1937, who collected examples of Jamaican folk culture.

However

Beckwith misquoted Cundall. In his article he actually stated that:

If you plant the seed of a plant called ‘mamy’ you will die” [my emphasis]

So three main questions arise – exactly what is the plant that Beckwith referred to, who exactly is it supposed to kill and by what means?

In the Dictionary of Jamaican English (a recommended read for anyone interested in the folklore of Jamaican plants), F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page write that the origins of the Mammy Plant are “uncertain” but speculate that it may be the “Mammee tree”, Mammea americana.

 

320px-Mammea_americana1 

The Mammea americana is a fruit-bearing tree native to the West Indies and parts of South America. Julia F. Morton in Fruits of Warm Climates (1987) describes it as being similar to “a southern magnolia”. Where the Mammea americana may have links with Beckwith’s “killer” Mammy Plant is in its toxicity.

Morton states that if the usually sweet fruit are of “poor quality” they have a very sour taste. To stop the bitterness, in parts of the Caribbean the fruit is soaked in salted water or wine. For some people the fruit can cause stomach upsets. There have also been reports of the fruit being poisonous to humans and small animals.

Morton goes on to mention that, as well as its fruit, other parts of Mammea americana are toxic. At times this toxicity has been utilised as an insecticide and for medicinal purposes; for example, to treat chiggers and head lice.

Could the belief reported by Beckwith and Cundall, that the Mammy Plant has the propensity to kill people, have its origins in the plant’s sour taste and toxic properties?

Or, to go down a more ominous route, does the plant actually possess a preternatural “power” which results in the deaths of either the cultivator or one of his or her relatives?

I’ll let you decide.

 

NB: I realise the qualities of the Mammy Plant fall into the “sinister” rather than “spiritual” category which is the usual focus for this blog. However, the chance to play plant detective kind of appealed.

Next time…. I celebrate International Women’s Day with a post about anthropologist Ruth Landes and her work on candomblé.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in text)

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. 148, pp. 212-213, p. 87.

Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), 94.

F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 290.

Image credits: picture by Sven Volkens – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki /File%3AMammea_americana1.jpg

Julia F. Morton, Fruits of Warm Climates (Miami: J.F. Morton, 1987), pp. 304-307.

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.

 

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

 

 

Sources
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