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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.