By Renea Winchester
Indian corn beads, rosary beads, Job’s tears, Coix lacryma-jobi: a plant by many names, but with similar uses.
I shall begin by paying homage to those who have suffered and endured insurmountable loss.
Cherokee Legend of the Corn Bead
Many years ago, during the 1830s, the Real People, as the Cherokee call themselves, were rounded up as cattle. They were forced to leave their homeland and walk west to a new land. They cried tears of sorrow and grief and hopelessness. Where their tears hit the ground, a plant sprung up. The seeds look like tears and their color is the color of grief.
Today, the Real People wear the seeds in necklaces, medallions and earrings in memory of the Trail of Tears.
Technically, the botanical name is Coix lacryma-jobi and before we progress, please don’t use Google as your guide when it comes to corn beads. This is not the same plant as grown in India or Asia which is used as grain. The cereal-variety is called Coix lacryma ma-yuen which is white and pale brown with a groove on one end.
We grow a different variety here in Appalachia, one used by crafters across the world. Corn bead tears are rock-hard and inedible. Before maturation, the seed endures multiple color changes, from white to yellow, pale green, dark brown laced with a variety of colors and finally, when ready to use, gray. Indian corn beads are a vital part of Appalachian heritage, but the Real People aren’t the only ones who use them.
While Native American tribes refer to the seeds as “corn beads,” there is a large population who call the seeds “rosary beads” or “Job’s tears” because they are used to make jewelry. According to legend, the name Job’s tears was given to the plant because of the many tears Job shed. Their shape and hard, shiny exterior shell resemble human tears and serve as a reminder of suffering, sorrow and redemption.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta used a rosary made of Job’s tears for her personal prayers. According to Richard Bauman’s “Differential Identify and the Social Base of Folklore,” rosaries made from Job’s tears involve the union of the sacred and “illustrate and reinforce kinship bonds.” It is also said that there is an emotional bond between the owner of the rosary and the maker of the rosary. While I have no experience with that bond, today I would like to speak about the grower’s bond.
I love many things about this plant. As a member of the grass family, jobi grows as tall as corn. One must harvest with care, because the leaves slice through your skin. Despite planting them the appropriate length apart, the jobi growing at Butterfly Cove seems to need its sister’s touch in order to thrive. Foliage arches outward, reaching – if you will – toward a brother or sister, touching its kin when the wind blows, whispering secrets.
When a farmer stands amidst rows of jobi and listens, truly listens, she can hear the plant whisper, “I will heal you if you are willing.” Picking the seeds is a holy experience, I relish the feel of slick seeds against my hands that have grown rough from summer field work.
Ripe seeds are slick and detach easily from the stem, whereas fruit that holds fast isn’t ready. Typically, after a long day at work I can be found “in the tear patch,” depositing seeds into a glass jar, smiling as they ping against the glass knowing they will be shipped to jewelry makers across the United States.
Regardless of name, I call myself blessed to grow such a significant crop. Friends, it is an honor to have a heritage plant of historic and spiritual significance growing at Butterfly Cove.
Renea Winchester is an award-winning author whose debut novel, “Outbound Train,” will release April 2020. Reach her at Butterflycovebotanicals.com.