Job's Tears

Wayne's WordIndexNoteworthy PlantsTriviaLemnaceaeBiology 101BotanySearch

Noteworthy Plants For April 1999

Job's Tears:

A Wild Grass That
Produces Nature's
Most Perfect Bead

Also See Teosinte

Table Of Contents:

 1.   Introduction
 2.   The Name Job's Tears
 3.   Structure of the Bead
 4.   Job's Tears As Food
 5.   Job's Tears In Jewelry
 6.   Musical Instruments
 7.   Preparing Job's Tears
 8.   The Related Teosinte
 9.   Other Indian Corn
10.  Types Of Modern Corn
11.  References

1. Introduction

From time immemorial, creative people have fashioned attractive bead jewelry from all sorts of natural objects. The variety of natural beads is only limited by one's imagination, including polished bone, tusks, teeth, vegetable ivory, sea shells, precious gemstones, seeds and amber. Although seeds probably require the least amount of preparation for bead production, they still need to be polished and drilled or pierced--a tedious and time-consuming process. But there is one remarkable seed called Job's tears that is already polished and has a hole through it. This perfect bead is produced by a tall, roadside grass (Coix lacryma-jobi) that grows like a weed throughout the Old and New World tropics.

An assortment of Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi) necklaces. The natural pearly-white beads can be dyed or painted various shades of colors.

2. Origin Of The Name Job's Tears

The common name Job's tears refers to the droplet-shaped, pearly white "beads," and to the biblical man of the Old Testament who endured great suffering. This relationship to tear drops is also reflected in the specific epithet lacryma-jobi, in reference to the tear-producing lacrimal glands located near the eyes. Although there is unanimous agreement that the beads resemble tears, there appears to be some disagreement as to exactly whose tears the beads resemble. Depending on exactly where you happen to be in the world, this plant goes by various names including David's tears, Saint Mary's tears, Christ's tears (Lacryma Christi), and just plain tear drops.

The leafy inflorescence of Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi) showing numerous green "beads." The dried, gray beads are strung into necklaces throughout tropical regions of the world.

3. Structure Of The Job's Tear Bead

Interestingly enough, the actual beadlike structure resembling a seed is not a seed at all. It is a very hard, hollow structure (called an involucre) containing a minute fertile female flower and two sterile flowers. Pollen-bearing male flowers are produced on a slender stalk that extends out of the bead through a tiny pore. Two feathery stigmas from the fertile female flower also protrude from the pore--ready to receive pollen from the male flowers. Like other members of the enormous Grass Family (Poaceae), Job's tears are pollinated by the wind. Following pollination, a seed-bearing grain is produced by the fertile female flower. The shiny gray beads are dispersed and planted like seeds, but they are actually remarkable little shells containing flowers and grains.

Close-up view of flowering Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi) showing the hollow, beadlike involucres which naturally have a hole in them. The threadlike styles of a female flower and a cluster of male flowers protrude from a tiny opening in each bead. Inside the bead is a minute, seed-bearing female flower (bottom).

4. Job's Tears As Food

Native to tropical Asia, Job's tears (also called Adlay) are used for food, particularly by peasants of the Far East. The distinguished 17th century naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius stated that in his day Job's tears were planted in Java and Celebes on the margins of rice fields. According to Agnes Arber (The Gramineae, 1965), Job's tears were introduced into China in the first century A.D. by a Chinese general who conquered Tongking, where the grains were widely used as a cereal. The general became so fond of Job's tears that he carried back several cartloads of the seeds to his own country.

A patch of Job's tears (Coix lacryma-jobi) in full bloom at the WAYNE'S WORD headquarters in southern California. The numerous flower clusters contain immature, green "beads."

Like other cereals, there are many cultivars of Job's tears, including soft-shelled, easily-threshed types with a sweet kernel. In some, the hulled grain is adapted for parching or boiling like rice, while in others it can be milled, ground into flour and baked into bread. Reportedly, the grain has a higher protein content than most cereals. The grains are also utilized in soups, porridge, drinks and pastries. In India, the Nagas use the grain for brewing a beer called zhu or dzu. A Japanese variety called "Ma-Yuen" is brewed into a tea and an alcoholic beverage, and roasted seeds are made into a coffee-like drink. According to Agnes Arber, the leaves are used as fodder in parts of India, and are especially relished by elephants.

Assorted Job's tears trinkets. The Honduran seed doll has legs, arms, and a neck made of Job's tears. The head is from a cashew nut.

5. Job's Tears In Tropical Seed Jewelry

But of all the uses for Job's tears, probably the most important is bead jewelry. Over the years Mr. Wolffia has made a large collection of seed necklaces from tropical regions of the world, and roughly twenty percent of his collection contain Job's tears, often mixed with other colorful seeds. This is undoubtedly because Job's tears grow so prolifically throughout these regions, often as a wayside weed, and the beads are plentiful and easy to string. Their natural color is pearly white, but they can be readily dyed shades of red, blue, green and yellow. In addition to attractive bead necklaces, belts, bracelets and earrings, they are also made into lovely rosaries with a cross at one end. In Central America, strings of Job's tears are commonly used for the arms and legs of quaint little seed dolls. Although the practice seems somewhat questionable, strings of Job's tears were reportedly given to teething babies.

Yagua Indian necklace from the Amazon region of Peru. In addition to Job's tears, the necklace contains red & black seeds from Ormosia monosperma, shiny black beetle legs, and claws from the giant anteater.

6. Job's Tears In Shaker Gourds

Another remarkable use for Job's tears is for musical instruments. Shaker gourds are probably one of the earliest musical instruments. In Africa, hollow gourds are covered with a loose net strung with hundreds of Job's tears. As the beads slap against the gourd a loud shaker sound is produced--as good as any modern instrument for this purpose. Using the neck of the gourd as a handle, the sound of the bead net is amplified by the hollow gourd.

See The WAYNE'S WORD Gourd Article

7. Preparing Job's Tears For Seed Jewelry

Job's tears are easy to grow in temperate climates and make an attractive annual in summer gardens. Sprays of the plant can be cut and dried for indoor bouquets. They are tied in small bundles and hung upside down in a shaded, dry, airy place until thoroughly dry. The beads can be dyed and strung into all sorts of creations. They can be worn as necklaces, or fashioned into bead curtains or colorful wall decorations. Vegetable and aniline clothing dyes are not very effective in dying the woody beads. The most vivid colors can be achieved by dipping or spraying them with primary color wood stains or quick-drying enamels. For durable, pliable necklaces that will not become brittle with time, ordinary dental floss works better than nylon fishing line. To facilitate the stringing process, a sewing needle threaded with dental floss can be inserted through each bead. In whatever creative way you display them, Job's tears are bound to make an interesting and unique conversation piece.

See Straight Pin & Sewing Needle Used In Wayne's Word Articles

A Job's tear seed necklace from the Amazon River of Peru. In addition to red & black Ormosia seeds, small black Canna seeds and two human teeth, the necklace also contains a well-preserved piranha.

The red-bellied piranha (Serrasalmus nattereri).

8. Teosinte (Madre de Maíz): The Origin of Corn

Job's tears are closely related to corn or maize (Zea mays). In fact, both species belong to the Grass Tribe Tripsaceae, along with a robust, perennial forage grass called gamagrass (Tripsacum). In corn, the grains are crowded together on a cob surrounded by a leafy husk. Male flowers are produced in a tassel that extends above the ears. In the Mexican grass teosinte (Zea mexicana or Zea mays ssp. mexicana), considered by many botanists to be the ancestor of modern corn, each grain is enclosed in a tough shell (cupule) similar to Job's tears. The tiny "ear" of teosinte consists of a single row of six or more grains. Through selective breeding over many thousands of years by native people, the outer shell encasing individual grains was gradually eliminated and the naked, many-grained modern corn plant was produced. In the region where teosinte grows wild, the native people call it "madre de maíz" or "mother of corn."

Teosinte (Zea mexicana):

A. Male Inflorescence (Tassel)

B. Female Inflorescence (Ear)
    With Outer Husk & Silk

C. Ear With Husk Pulled Away
    Exposing A Row Of Grains

D. A Leaf Pulled Back
    Exposing Two Ears

E. Leaf (Blade)

Teosinte (Zea mexicana):

Close-up view of three ears
compared with a U.S. Penny.
[Penny is 18 mm in diameter.]

The outer husk of one ear is
pulled away revealing a single
row of seven grains.

This wild Mexican grass is
considered by some botanists
to be the ancestor of modern
corn (maize).

Teosinte (Zea mexicana) showing pollen-bearing tassel (left) and a female ear with silk (right). This is truly a miniature version of the modern corn plant (Zea mays). Compare this tiny ear with the following image of a modern ear of corn.

The female inflorescence of modern corn (Zea mays) showing numerous red, threadlike styles (collectively referred to as the silk), and the green, leaflike husk enclosing numerous ovaries of female flowers which develop into the grains.

9. New World Indian Corn

Individual grains of teosinte have a hard, flinty endosperm like popcorn. When they are heated, water contained within the starchy endosperm expands as steam, and the hard-shelled grains literally explode. Other varieties of modern corn, such as the delicious sweet corn sold in markets, have soft kernels with a sugary endosperm. The large populations and impressive cultural achievements of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas would have been impossible without the coevolution of corn. Although the hard, colorful grains of Indian corn have been used for necklaces, early people probably realized the potential of this plant for food and began cultivating it. The use of Job's tears also dates back thousands of years, but the value of this plant for human adornment was apparently greater than its value for food.

An assortment of corn (Zea mays), including strawberry corn, popping corn, Indian corn and pod corn. Many botanical authorities believe that all of these amazing varieties were developed from a Mexican grass called teosinte, known as "madre de maíz" in the regions where it grows wild. In the two ears at far left (called pod corn), the individual grains are enclosed in papery bracts called glumes. Glumes are present is most native grasses, but have been selected against in modern edible corn for obvious reasons.

Close-up view of pod corn showing papery glumes enclosing the grains.

Hypothesis For Origin Of Pod Corn From Teosinte:

The seed spike of teosinte consists of a single row of grains. Each grain is enclosed in a hard fruit case (called a cupule) and a pair of papery glumes. This spike is equivalent to an ear of modern corn.

Tunicate Mutation: The grains are enclosed in a pair of husklike glumes (without the hard outer cupule) from which they can be threshed with ease. Further selection by pre-Columbian farmers could have reduced the size of the tunicate glumes and resulted in ears with many rows.

Grains of Indian corn come in different colors, such as purple, yellow and white. Sometimes the individual grains are purple with white mottling. This mottling effect defies Mendel's basic principles of genetics because individual grains may be multicolored rather than a single color. The explanation for this involves "jumping genes" or transposons, and earned Dr. Barbara McClintok the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1983 for her life-long research on corn genetics.

See An Explanation About Jumping Genes
 Go To Biology Exercise On Genetics Of Corn 

10. Some Photos Of Modern Corn (Zea mays)

A field of corn (Zea mays) near Brentwood in the fertile Sacramento Valley of northern California. In the distance are the northern Coast Ranges and Mount Diablo.

Popping corn, one of the many varieties of Zea mays. The small, upper left ear is called strawberry popcorn. When the grains are heated, water contained within the starchy endosperm expands as steam, and the hard-shelled grains literally explode. Grains of some of the earliest known forms of corn, such as teosinte, were hard, thick-shelled popping corns. So the next time you enjoy freshly-popped corn, remember that you are primarily eating hot, exploded endosperm.

11. Job's Tears References

  1. Arber, Agnes. 1965. The Gramineae--A Study of Cereal, Bamboo, and Grass. Wheldon & Wesley, Ltd., New York.

  2. Armstrong, W.P. 1994. "Job's Tears." Ornament 18 (1): 104-105.

  3. Armstrong, W.P. 1993. "Botanical Jewelry." Herbalgram 29: 26-33.

  4. Armstrong, W.P. 1992. "Jewels of the Tropics." Terra 30 (3): 26-33.

  5. Armstrong, W.P. 1991. "Beautiful Botanicals: Seeds For Jewelry." Ornament 15 (1): 66-69.

  6. Arora, R.K. 1977. "Job's Tears (Coix lacryma-jobi)--a Minor Food and Fodder Crop of Northeastern India." Economic Botany 31 (3): 358-366.

  7. Francis, Peter, Jr. 1984. "Plants as Human Adornment in India." Economic Botany 38 (2): 194-209.

Return To WAYNE'S WORD Home Page
Go To Biology GEE WHIZ TRIVIA Page