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.
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.
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.