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): https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sonnenbrandbaum1.jpg

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Physic Nut (Jatropha curcas)

This month’s post looks at the links between the Physic Nut tree (Jatropha curcas) and Christ’s crucifixion. However, I’m starting on a more prosaic note. In “Jamaican Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith  wrote that Physic Nut was “Used generally as a purgative”. As well as being an emetic, according to the Plants for the Future website, Physic Nut has many other healing properties. Here are just a few of them:

 “The leaves … can be used to treat a wide range of medicinal conditions such as coughs, convulsions, jaundice, fevers, rheumatic pains, guinea worm sores, wounds and cuts, sores, etc. The seeds can be used as a purgative but only in small doses. Oil obtained from the seeds are used in the treatment of skin diseases and rheumatic pains. It also stimulates hair growth. The root bark is used for sores, dysentery, and jaundice.”

Plants for a Future also warn that all parts of the plant are poisonous.

Jatropha_curcas5_henning

 

Aside from its medicinal properties, the Physic Nut has strong associations in the Caribbean with Christ’s crucifixion. For example, in the book Bush Doctor which lists examples of the lore surrounding Caribbean plants, Sylvester Ayre calls the tree the Crucifixion Tree, stating that: “according to believers the red blood-like substance that oozes from the tree when cut at Easter, symbolizes the blood Christ shed on the cross, which was reputedly made of physic wood”.

When doing her Caribbean research in the early 1920s, Martha Beckwith was told of the Physic Nut tree’s propensity to bleed on Good Friday at 12 noon and one of her Pukkumerian informants who had tried this herself, said to Beckwith that the substance oozing from the wood “ really was blood’”.

 

Next time…. I’ll be looking at the folklore surrounding a few other trees whose wood was believed to have been used for Christ’s Cross.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in post)

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. 24.

“Plants for a Future” https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Jatropha+curcas

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 10.

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. 40.

Image credits: Photograph of West African Jatropha curcas by R.K. Henning at http://www.Jatropha.org

The Devil in the meadow: the Satanic associations of Warwickshire’s flora

 

This month’s post is another of my occasional transatlantic ‘diversions’. The plant, or rather, plants I’m featuring take the devilish theme to the other side of the Atlantic, to the county of Warwickshire, England.

As with some Jamaican plants, a number of British plants are called after, or have associations with the Devil. For example, in the Folklore of Warwickshire (2004), Roy Palmer lists “Naughty Man’s (or Cow) Parsley, Naughty Man’s Plaything (Shepherd’s Purse), and Devil’s Nightcap (Hedge Parsley)”. It may seem a bit strange that a being as heinous as the Devil could be described ‘Naughty’. However, in past centuries in England the word naughty meant ‘wicked’ rather than the more innocuous connotation that it has today.

I’d always been of the assumption that blue plants were linked with the Virgin Mary. However, in the Warwickshire countryside, they take on a more sinister aspect. Writing on Warwickshire plant lore in 1929, J. Harvey Bloom stated that: “All blue flowers are Devil’s flowers and unlucky especially the Germander Speedwell.” He went on to say that “Love-in-the-Mist is also called Devil-in-a-Bush… ”

However, rather than the colour of its petals, there is a more obvious ‘explanation’ to Love-in-the-Mist’s Satanic connections. The seed head with its little “horns” makes its alternative name of Devil-in-a-Bush apparent.

160px-Love_in_the_Mist_(Unsplash_db23UKIiAdo)
Love-in-the-mist

Although purple rather than blue in colour, another flower fitting in with the theme of British plants that are associated with Satan is the Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis). Much like Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys) and Love-in-the-Mist (Nigella damascena), Devil’s Bit Scabious is a pretty plant and so links to Beelzebub aren’t the first things that spring to mind. It also has medicinal uses. However, one folkloric theory of its name which is based on the plant’s appearance provides some explanation. In Discovering the Folklore of Plants (2008), Margaret Baker writes that the Devil’s Bit Scabious got its name from “its abruptly terminating stem. The Devil, envious of the good the plant could do… took away part of the root”.

 

Devil's_Bit_Scabious_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1497894
Devils’ Bit Scabious

 

As for the Germander Speedwell the only spiritual associations I can find for the plant (so far) is a holy one. Baker says that its flowers “are said to resemble St Veronica’s handkerchief, which was impressed with Christ’s likeness”. She also notes that speedwell is also believed to be “effective against spells”.

Compton Verney May 2018 011
germander speedwell

 

Next time…. It’s back to Jamaica for the duppy-scaring properties of Guinea weed.

 

 

Sources in order of appearance in the text

Roy Palmer Folklore of Warwickshire (revised edn, Stroud; Tempus Publishing Limited, 2004; orig. edn, London: Batsford, 1976), p. 117.

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

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), p. 141.

Image credits: Germander Speedwell by Simon Noel (private collection)

Love-in the-Mist by Annie Spratt – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Love_in_the_Mist_(Unsplash_db23UKIiAdo).jpg

Devil’s Bit Scabious by Philip – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Devil%27s_Bit_Scabious_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1497894.jpg