Coix lacryma-jobi, or Job’s tears (also known as “Christ’s tears”), is a close relative of the corn family that has the distinction of being one of the oldest ornamental grasses in cultivation. It was probably being grown for pleasure by the 14th century, especially around religious institutions. Plant this grass in your back yard and you’ll have history growing just outside the door. The genus, Coix, is a Greek word for a palm or reed-leafed plant; lacryma-jobi literally means “Job’s tears.”
In The Gramineae (Wheldon & Wesley, Ltd., New York, 1965), Agnes Arber writes about a Chinese general who, in the first century of the Christian era, conquered Tongking and became so fond of Job’s tears that he carried several cartloads of seeds back home. An annual grass (or a short-lived perennial, in very warm climates), Job’s tears is native to Southeast Asia and is also found in grasslands in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Culms are knobby, often bending at the nodes, and bear glossy, deep-green leaf blades up to 2 feet long and sometimes 2 inches wide, graced with wavy edges. In very warm surroundings, plants can reach a height of 5-6 feet.
The flowering and fruiting terminal spikelets are nondescript but eventually mature into shiny, pea-sized receptacles that hold very hard, beadlike, gray or mottled seeds resembling teardrops. The seeds bear two feathery female stigmas, with two green male flowers just above.
Although Job’s tears is considered a weed by many farmers, its seeds are actually a valuable foodstuff (and the way things are going, we artists — after being pounded and threshed by the Washington politicians — may be reduced to relying on them for our daily sustenance). After pounding and threshing the seeds, you mix the resultant powder with water to make an edible cereal (or a nutritious drink, akin to barley water).
Old travel books describe locals husking and eating the seeds like peanuts. They’re also used to make fermented drinks. Throughout the tropics, the seeds are often tinted, then strung and sold as rosaries. Certain Burmese tribes use the seeds as jewelry, in combination with squirrel tails, beetle wings and hammered silver. And grass authorities report that under cultivation, the shells soon lose their hard, pearly quality and rich gloss and become relatively soft. This fact is fully recognized in Burma, where, as soon as deterioration sets in, a fresh stock is obtained from the jungle.
The plants will easily adapt to wet ground, so they do well growing next to ponds or streams. They also tolerate soils that lack fertility, but they don’t respond to heavy clay soils. Remember to soak the seeds for 24 hours before planting. Job’s tears grows well in Zones 8-12; in colder areas, start the seeds indoors (using individual peat pots).
Rarely, a variegated variety with longitudinally striped, green-and-white leaves is sold under the name ‘Aurea Zebrina’.