Precatory Bean

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(Abrusprecatorius) A tropical climber, with red to purple flowers, followed by bright red and black seeds, which are the African LUCKY BEANS. But they are dangerous if crushed and then swallowed, for they contain a toxic agent, abrin, which is very poisonous. The beans have a notorious history in India as an agent of criminal poisoning (Grieve. 1931), chiefly against livestock, but also frequently against human beings, and abrin is an ingredient of some arrow poisons (Reynolds).

The beans are always associated with dangerous magic in most parts of southern Africa. When they are found decorating an object, it may safely be identified as being used in sorcery, witchcraft, etc., (Reynolds), though in the West Indies, it seems, they are used simply for ornamental beadwork (Gooding, Loveless & Proctor). But the best known uses of the seeds are as prayer beads (precatory, in the common name, is straight from the Latin precari, to pray) - the names Prayer Beads (Grieve. 1931), Rosary Pea (Kingsbury. 1964), and Paternoster Bean (Howes) emphasise the concept.

The root was used in India and Java as a substitute for liquorice (F P Smith); the leaves taste of it, too (the plant is sometimes known as Indian Liquorice, or Wild Liquorice; the word is reduced to Lick in a Jamaican name, Lickweed (Beckwith., 1969)). The seeds weigh about one carat, and have been used in India for centuries for weighing gold, under the name Rati (Grieve. 1931). They were also the basic unit in the Ashanti system of weights. The smallest brass weight was called ntoka, and weighed approximately the same as ten abrus seeds (Plass).

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