Hand of Christ: Louisiana Vernacular Medicine

2015 Louisiana Studies Conference Presentation Abstract

“Hand of Christ: Louisiana Vernacular Medicine”

Presented by Anna Grace Keller, Independent Scholar

Palma Christa leaf (Ricinus communis L.) was listed as a remedy for headache and fever in the 1945 Louisiana Writer’s Project book Gumbo Ya-Ya. Ninety years earlier, a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans successfully treated the complex illness of a woman who survived the 1853 yellow fever epidemic with the leaf. Today, I use palma Christa as a traditional medicine. In this presentation I discuss vernacular and professional uses of palma Christa leaf in Louisiana and the West Atlantic System.

Palma Christa leaf is among the 10 most used plant remedies in the Caribbean and throughout Africa. It is widely used in Central America and the Islamic world. Its use was documented in the twentieth century in New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, and the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The leaf is applied to control pain, limit infection, and to move the bowels and phlegm.

New world palma Christa culture began with poisonous seeds carried by enslaved Africans through the trans-Atlantic passage. Nineteenth century South Asian migrants reinforced its traditional use. The mid-nineteenth century Charity physician Dr. Nott used the leaf in clinical practice after reading a paper by a British surgeon about its use in the Cape Verde islands. In this presentation, I use personal experience, biochemistry, and history to share sweeping stories palma Christa tells about migration and power, and intimate stories it tells about harm and care.

Works Cited

Dr. Nott. “The Ricinus Communis as an Emmenagogue and Galactagogue.” The Medical

Examiner: A Monthly Record of Medical Science 11 (4): 1855. 246-247. The Medical Examiner reprinted Nott’s paper from the New Orleans Medical News and Hospital Gazette.

Saxon, Lyle, with Edward Dreyer and Robert Tallant. Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of

Louisiana Folk Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1945.