Magical charm plants to ensure good luck in hunting, fishing, agriculture, love and warfare are known among many Amerindians groups in the Guianas. Documented by anthropologists as social and political markers and exchangeable commodities, these charms have received little attention by ethnobotanists, as they are surrounded by secrecy and are difficult to identify. We compared the use of charm species among indigenous groups in the Guianas to see whether similarity in charm species was related to geographical or cultural proximity. We hypothesized that cultivated plants were more widely shared than wild ones and that charms with underground bulbs were more widely used than those without such organs, as vegetatively propagated plants would facilitate transfer of charm knowledge.
We compiled a list of charm plants from recent fieldwork and supplemented these with information from herbarium collections, historic and recent literature among 11 ethnic groups in the Guianas. To assess similarity in plant use among these groups, we performed a Detrended Component Analysis (DCA) on species level. To see whether cultivated plants or vegetatively propagated species were more widely shared among ethnic groups than wild species or plants without rhizomes, tubers or stem-rooting capacity, we used an independent sample t-test.
We recorded 366 charms, representing 145 species. The majority were hunting charms, wild plants, propagated via underground bulbs and grown in villages. Our data suggest that similarity in charm species is associated with geographical proximity and not cultural relatedness. The most widely shared species, used by all Amerindian groups, is Caladium bicolor. The tubers of this plant facilitate easy transport and its natural variability allows for associations with a diversity of game animals. Human selection on shape, size and color of plants through clonal reproduction has ensured the continuity of morphological traits and their correlation with animal features.
Charm plants serve as vehicles for traditional knowledge on animal behavior, tribal warfare and other aspects of oral history and should therefore deserve more scientific and societal attention, especially because there are indications that traditional knowledge on charms is disappearing.