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

 

Spirit Weed (Eryngium foetidum, L.)

 

As Halloween is looming (🎃 🎃 🎃), I thought I’d look at spirit weed (Eryngium foetidum, L.), another plant from Martha Warren Beckwith’s “Jamaican Ethnobotany” (1928) which has properties believed to keep evil entities at bay. Beckwith wrote that “[b]ecause of its pungent odor” spirit weed is universally employed like ‘Rosemary’ and ‘See-me-contract’ to ‘drive away duppies’”.

Zora Neale Hurston, who was investigating Jamaican folk life in the 1930s, was told that if you drank tea made from a branch of spirit weed, “duppies can’t touch you. You can walk into a room where all kinds of evil and duppies are and be perfectly safe.”

However, spirit weed can potentially do more than act as a means to stop bothersome duppies. In their dictionary of Jamaican Herbs and Medicinal Plants, L. Mike Henry and K. Sean Harris mention a different supernatural power attributed to the plant – its ability to “make the person who chews the root invisible”. They note how Jamaican Maroons used spirit weed-induced invisibility as a weapon in their conflicts with the British during the 17th and early 18th centuries. British soldiers reported that that it seemed as if “the trees were fighting them, because they could see the leaves moving and hear the rustling but could see no one.” Whilst I remain open-minded as to whether spirit weed can or could actually induce invisibility, the Maroons were extremely skilled in the art of camouflage, utilising leaves and branches and other forms of foliage to blend into the landscape. Therefore, they may have appeared “invisible” to the British soldiers simply through the effectiveness of their disguise.

256px-Eryngium_foetidum_L__(6674360625)
As with a few of the plants listed by Martha Beckwith there is some dispute about the alternate names for spirit weed. Beckwith said that it was also known as parrot weed. However, in the Dictionary of Jamaican English Cassidy and Le Page say that this was a mistake on Beckwith’s part. The “Common Names” database of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (http://nhmj-ioj.org.jm/ioj_wp/botany/common-name/ gives the common name for spirit weed as “fit weed” or “fit bush”.

An early twentieth century article on Jamaican plants used in folk medicine by Morris Steggarda, contemporaneous with Beckwith’s research, also has “fit weed” as another name for spirit weed and modern botanists G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton categorise it as such in their article “The Medicinal Powers of Jamaican Plants”. They go on to describe how:

 “A decoction of the plant is used for colds and fits in children. The plant is rubbed on the body for fainting fits and convulsions. Since it is said to have magical properties in connection with protection from duppies (ghosts) this may explain its use in convulsions, fainting and hysteria for which it has long been employed in Jamaica”.

 

Next time….
Another plant used to keep away spirits of the dead – water weed

 

 

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. 27.
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), p. 25.
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), pp. 53-54.
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.
F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002), p. 340.
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. 32.
G.F. Asprey and Phyllis Thornton, “Medicinal Plants of Jamaica”, West Indian Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 4 and vol. 3, no. 1 accessed via http://www.herbalstudies.net.
Image credits: Eryngium foetidum L, by Dinesh Valke https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEryngium_foetidum_L._(6674360625).jpg

 

Wangla (sesame indicum)

In her writings on Jamaican ethnobotany, Martha Warren Beckwith never gave the Latin name for wangla but according to the Natural History Museum of Jamaica’s plant names database it is sesamum indicum or sesame. In Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (1929), she noted that the plant was believed to have “Obeah powers” which aided in the detection of theft. If a person had stolen plants from another’s provision grounds and had left a footprint, the victim should:

 “take up the earth carefully in a leaf, measure it with a spoon, and put “four-thirds” as much wangla seed with it and put the whole lot into a pot upon the fire. Call the name of the person you think is the thief and if you are right, as many “bumps” will appear on his foot as there are seeds that “pop.””

 

An alternate method could be used if the thief’s identity was known. Any wangla planted in the provision ground should be hit whilst calling out the thief’s name. This too would bring out bumps on his or her leg. Simon Falconer, one of Beckwith’s informants, told her that the only way the thief could prevent this happening was to have previously eaten some wangla seed.

201px-Sesame_(PSF)

Thomas Banbury  also wrote of some very unpleasant effects that wangla could wreak on thieves. In Banbury’s account, if a thief walked along a road on which a mix of wangla, salt and pepper had be burned, then he or she would contract “Jamaica leprosy”.

 

Next time….
“Nature & Supernatural Nature” goes on its hols. But that doesn’t mean slouching on a sun lounger, slathered in factor 50 and sipping cocktails. Instead, we’re off to Warwickshire, England, to investigate why only bad people can grow parsley.

 

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), pp. 128-129.
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. 10. Cited in Beckwith, Black Roadways, p. 129.
Image credits: Pearson Scott Foresman https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASesame_(PSF).png

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?

Wormweed

Next time…

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

 

Sources

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.

 

 

Broom-weed (Malvastrum coromandelianum)

This month’s plant is spiritual only in the sense that God and two saints are invoked in its usage. In “Jamaica Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith wrote of how broom-weed was used by rural Jamaicans to catch thieves.

Mrs Peart, the wife of one of her informants, told Beckwith that to find a thief, you must: “take two pieces of the plant [broom-weed], dip them in lye-water* reciting ‘By St. Peter, by St. Paul, By the living God of all’”. The pieces of broom-weed should be placed either side of the suspect’s neck. The plant will then wind itself around the neck of the guilty party and choke him or her.

A turn of the century collection of African-Jamaican folklore described this technique as “the broom-weed gallows”.
malvastrum_coromandelianum_1461771973

I’m guessing that the inclusion of Saints Peter and Paul in the recitation used alongside the broom-weed has British origins. In Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (2007), Owen Davies cites the example of a British nineteenth-century charm which included the names of the same two saints:
“By Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
God is the maker of us all;
What he gave to me I give to thee,
And that is nought to nobody.”

Giving “nought to nobody” implies that this rhyme was used to prevent theft. Peter and Paul’s names are to be found amongst a list of saints used in Anglo-Saxon charms to detect missing goods and livestock so maybe the 19th century charm is an abbreviated version of these much older ones?

I haven’t been able to found out why Peter and Paul were called upon for this purpose. Peter is believed to be the patron saint of locksmiths so that may be the reason. However Paul’s patronage is mainly for occupations involving writing so there doesn’t seem any obvious link there.

St Peter                                                                                      St Paul

256px-tondo_st_peter_mnma_cl23759                                        castell_coch_stained_glass_panel_1

* lye is a chemical used in soaps and detergents. Household cleaning products were sometimes used in Caribbean folk practices. For example, in his book on Obeah in nineteenth century Grenada, Sir Henry Hesketh Bell wrote of an Obeah man who had hung bottles containing laundry blue mixed with sea water off trees in to prevent petty larceny.from a garden.

Next time
We’re back to preventing unwanted attention from duppies.

 

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. 13.
Frank Cundall, “Folklore of the Negroes of Jamaica”, Folklore, Vol. 15, No. 1. (Mar. 25, 1904), p. 92.
Example from The Times, 30 March, 1850 cited in Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History (London and New York: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), p. 154.
Lea Olsen, The Inscription of Charms in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Oral Tradition, Vol. 14, no. 2 (1999), p. 409.
Henry Hesketh J. Bell, Obeah: Witchcraft in the West Indies (reprint, Westport: Negro Universities Press, 1970 of 1889 edn, London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1889), p. 4.

picture: broom-weed: Dinesh Valke https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3AMalvastrum_coromandelianum_(1461771973).jpg
picture: St Peter: Jastrow https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3ATondo_St_Peter_MNMA_Cl23759.jpg
picture: St Paul: Hchc2009 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File3ACastell_Coch_stained_glass_panel_1.JPG