I’ve chosen God-Bush (Oryctanthus Occidetnalis) as this month’s plant mainly because of its name’s associations with Yuletide rather than for any particular association with the spirit world.
In a letter entitled “A Name for Mistletoe in Jamaica” published in the journal Folklore in 1923, H. Lambert wrote that he had been told by the British anthropologist, James Frazer (of Golden Bough fame) that in Jamaica Mistletoe was called ‘God-Bush’ (Lambert, p. 246). Frazer appears to have applied the name ‘Mistletoe’ in a generic sense, as a parasitic plant which grew on trees, rather than referring specifically to Viscum album, the European plant known as Mistletoe.
God-Bush or Jamaican Mistletoe, (Oryctanthus Occidentalis) is part of the Loranthacea family of parasitic plants. It is used in Jamaican folk medicine to aid uterine problems, insomnia and high blood pressure (Henry & Harris, p. 22). Although as yet I can find no Jamaican spirit lore attached to the God-Bush, Cassidy and Le Page in the Dictionary of Jamaican English believed that the plant was so named because it “grew without ever touching the ground”, thus appearing to have supernatural qualities (Cassidy & Le Page, p. 200).
The idea of a plant growing in a ‘liminal zone’ having supernatural powers also appears in lore attached to the European Mistletoe. Margaret Baker comments that because Viscum album grows on a host tree, its habitat, suspended between earth and sky, contributed to its links with the supernatural for the Celtic peoples of Europe (Baker, p. 99).
Another connection between the God-Bush and European Mistletoe is that in Jamaican plant lore, the former should never be cut with “metal scissors” or allowed to touch the ground, otherwise it will lose its powers (Henry & Harris, p. 22). In European folklore and mythology, Viscum album can be cut with metal blades but they must never be made from iron. According to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder’s account of the use of Mistletoe in medicine in Gaul (modern France), it too would lose its power if it touched the earth (cited in Frazer, p. 751).
Next time…. its back to Rice, this time focussing on the darker side of the lore.
Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008).
F.G. Cassidy and R.B. Le Page (eds), Dictionary of Jamaican English (2nd ed., University of the West Indies Press: Barbados, 2002).
James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (abridged edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
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).
Lambert, “A Name for the Mistletoe in Jamaica”, Folklore, vol. 34, No. 3 (Sept. 29, 1923).
Image credits: Oryctanthus Occidentalis illustration by H.R. Sparkes