Children's Rhymes and Games with
by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
Folklore of Plants
Children are more or less observers of nature, and frequently far more
so than their elders. This, perhaps, is in a great measure to be
accounted for from the fact that childhood is naturally inquisitive, and
fond of having explained whatever seems in any way mysterious. Such
especially is the case in the works of nature, and in a country ramble
with children their little voices are generally busy inquiring why this
bird does this, or that plant grows in such a way—a variety of
questions, indeed, which unmistakably prove that the young mind
instinctively seeks after knowledge. Hence, we find that the works of
nature enter largely into children's pastimes; a few specimens of their
rhymes and games associated with plants we quote below.
In Lincolnshire, the butter-bur (Petasites vulgaris) is nicknamed
bog-horns, because the children use the hollow stalks as horns or
trumpets, and the young leaves and shoots of the common hawthorn
(Cratoegus oxyacantha), from being commonly eaten by children in
spring, are known as "bread and cheese;" while the ladies-smock
(Cardamine pratensis) is termed "bread and milk," from the custom, it
has been suggested, of country people having bread and milk for
breakfast about the season when the flower first comes in. In the North
of England this plant is known as cuckoo-spit, because almost every
flower stem has deposited upon it a frothy patch not unlike human
saliva, in which is enveloped a pale green insect. Few north-country
children will gather these flowers, believing that it is unlucky to do
so, adding that the cuckoo has spit upon it when flying over. 
The fruits of the mallow are popularly termed by children cheeses, in
allusion to which Clare writes:—
"The sitting down when school was o'er,
Upon the threshold of the door,
Picking from mallows, sport to please,
The crumpled seed we call a cheese."
A Buckinghamshire name with children for the deadly nightshade (Atropa
belladonna) is the naughty-man's cherry, an illustration of which we
may quote from Curtis's "Flora Londinensis":—"On Keep Hill, near High
Wycombe, where we observed it, there chanced to be a little boy. I asked
him if he knew the plant. He answered 'Yes; it was naughty-man's
cherries.'" In the North of England the broad-dock (Rumex
obtusifolius), when in seed, is known by children as curly-cows, who
milk it by drawing the stalks through their fingers. Again, in the same
locality, children speaking of the dead-man's thumb, one of the popular
names of the Orchis mascula, tell one another with mysterious awe that
the root was once the thumb of some unburied murderer. In one of the
"Roxburghe Ballads" the phrase is referred to:—
"Then round the meadows did she walke,
Catching each flower by the stalke,
Suche as within the meadows grew,
As dead-man's thumbs and harebell blue."
It is to this plant that Shakespeare doubtless alludes in "Hamlet" (Act
iv. sc. 7), where:—
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead-men's fingers call them."
In the south of Scotland, the name "doudle," says Jamieson, is applied
to the root of the common reed-grass (Phragmites communis), which is
found, partially decayed, in morasses, and of "which the children in the
south of Scotland make a sort of musical instrument, similar to the
oaten pipes of the ancients." In Yorkshire, the water-scrophularia
(Scrophularia aquatica), is in children's language known as
"fiddle-wood," so called because the stems are by children stripped of
their leaves, and scraped across each other fiddler-fashion, when they
produce a squeaking sound. This juvenile music is the source of infinite
amusement among children, and is carried on by them with much enthusiasm
in their games. Likewise, the spear-thistle (Carduus lanceolatus) is
designated Marian in Scotland, while children blow the pappus from the
"Marian, Marian, what's the time of day,
One o'clock, two o'clock—it's time we were away."
In Cheshire, when children first see the heads of the ribwort plantain
(Plantago lanceolata) in spring, they repeat the following rhyme:—
"Chimney sweeper all in black,
Go to the brook and wash your back,
Wash it clean, or wash it none;
Chimney sweeper, have you done?":—
Being in all probability a mode of divination for insuring good luck.
Another name for the same plant is "cocks," from children fighting the
flower-stems one against another.
The common hazel-nut (Corylus avellana) is frequently nicknamed the
"cob-nut," and was so called from being used in an old game played by
children. An old name for the devil's-bit (Scabiosa succisa), in the
northern counties, and in Scotland, is "curl-doddy," from the
resemblance of the head of flowers to the curly pate of a boy, this
nickname being often used by children who thus address the plant:—
"Curly-doddy, do my biddin',
Soop my house, and shoal my widden'."
In Ireland, children twist the stalk, and as it slowly untwists in the
hand, thus address it:—
"Curl-doddy on the midden,
Turn round an' take my biddin'."
In Cumberland, the Primula farinosa, commonly known as bird's-eye, is
called by children "bird-een."
"The lockety-gowan and bonny bird-een
Are the fairest flowers that ever were seen."
And in many places the Leontodon taraxacum is designated "blow-ball,"
because children blow the ripe fruit from the receptacle to tell the
time of day and for various purposes of divination. Thus in the "Sad
Shepherd," page 8, it is said:—
"Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk."
In Scotland, one of the popular names of the Angelica sylvestris is
"aik-skeiters," or "hear-skeiters," because children shoot oats through
the hollow stems, as peas are shot through a pea-shooter. Then there is
the goose-grass (Galium aparine), variously called goose-bill,
beggar's-lice, scratch-weed, and which has been designated blind-tongue,
because "children with the leaves practise phlebotomy upon the tongue of
those playmates who are simple enough to endure it," a custom once very
general in Scotland. 
The catkins of the willow are in some counties known as "goslings," or
"goslins,"—children, says Halliwell,  sometimes playing with them by
putting them in the fire and singeing them brown, repeating verses at
the same time. One of the names of the heath-pea (Lathyrus
macrorrhizus) is liquory-knots, and school-boys in Berwickshire so
call them, for when dried their taste is not unlike that of the real
liquorice.  Again, a children's name of common henbane (Hyoscyamus
niger) is "loaves of bread," an allusion to which is made by Clare in
his "Shepherd's Calendar":—
"Hunting from the stack-yard sod
The stinking henbane's belted pod,
By youth's warm fancies sweetly led
To christen them his loaves of bread."
A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the "oblionker tree."
According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177),
in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys
thread them on string and play a "cob-nut" game with them. When the
striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary's nut,
My first conker (conquer)."
The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme
with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the
The wall peniterry (Parietaria officinalis) is known in Ireland as
"peniterry," and is thus described in "Father Connell, by the O'Hara
Family" (chap, xii.):—
"A weed called, locally at least, peniterry, to which the suddenly
terrified [schoolboy] idler might run in his need, grasping it hard and
threateningly, and repeating the following 'words of power':—
'Peniterry, peniterry, that grows by the wall,
Save me from a whipping, or I'll pull you roots and all.'"
Johnston, who has noticed so many odd superstitions, tells us that the
tuberous ground-nut (Bunium flexuosum), which has various nicknames,
such as "lousy," "loozie," or "lucie arnut," is dug up by children who
eat the roots, "but they are hindered from indulging to excess by a
cherished belief that the luxury tends to generate vermin in the
An old rhyme often in years past used by country children when the
daffodils made their annual appearance in early spring, was as
Has now come to town,
In a yellow petticoat
And a green gown."
A name for the shepherd's purse is "mother's-heart," and in the eastern
Border district, says Johnston, children have a sort of game with the
seed-pouch. They hold it out to their companions, inviting them to "take
a haud o' that." It immediately cracks, and then follows a triumphant
shout, "You've broken your mother's heart." In Northamptonshire,
children pick the leaves of the herb called pick-folly, one by one,
repeating each time the words, "Rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief,"
&c., fancying that the one which comes to be named at the last plucking
will prove the conditions of their future partners. Variations of this
custom exist elsewhere, and a correspondent of "Science Gossip" (1876,
xi. 94). writes:—"I remember when at school at Birmingham that my
playmates manifested a very great repugnance to this plant. Very few of
them would touch it, and it was known to us by the two bad names,
"haughty-man's plaything," and "pick your mother's heart out." In
Hanover, as well as in the Swiss canton of St. Gall, the same plant is
offered to uninitiated persons with a request to pluck one of the pods.
Should he do so the others exclaim, "You have stolen a purse of gold
from your father and mother."" "It is interesting to find," writes Mr.
Britten in the "Folk-lore Record" (i. 159), "that a common tropical
weed, Ageratum conyzoides, is employed by children in Venezuela in a
very similar manner."
The compilers of the "Dictionary of Plant Names" consider that the
double (garden) form of Saxifraga granulata, designated "pretty
maids," may be referred to in the old nursery rhyme:—
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
Cockle-shells, and silver bells,
And pretty maids all in a row."
The old-man's-beard (Clematis vitalba) is in many places popularly
known as smoke-wood, because "our village-boys smoke pieces of the wood
as they do of rattan cane; hence, it is sometimes called smoke-wood, and
The children of Galloway play at hide-and-seek with a little
black-topped flower which is known by them as the Davie-drap, meantime
repeating the following rhyme:—
"Within the bounds of this I hap
My black and bonnie Davie-drap:
Wha is he, the cunning ane,
To me my Davie-drap will fin'?"
This plant, it has been suggested,  being the cuckoo grass (Luzula
campestris), which so often figures in children's games and rhymes.
Once more, there are numerous games played by children in which certain
flowers are introduced, as in the following, known as "the three
flowers," played in Scotland, and thus described in Chambers's "Popular
Rhymes," p. 127:—"A group of lads and lasses being assembled round the
fire, two leave the party and consult together as to the names of three
others, young men or girls, whom they designate as the red rose, the
pink, and the gillyflower. The two young men then return, and having
selected a member of the fairer group, they say to her:—
'My mistress sent me unto thine,
Wi' three young flowers baith fair and fine:—
The pink, the rose, and the gillyflower,
And as they here do stand,
Whilk will ye sink, whilk will ye swim,
And whilk bring hame to land?'
The maiden must choose one of the flowers named, on which she passes
some approving epithet, adding, at the same time, a disapproving
rejection of the other two, as in the following terms: 'I will sink the
pink, swim the rose, and bring hame the gillyflower to land.' The young
men then disclose the names of the parties upon whom they had fixed
those appellations respectively, when it may chance she has slighted the
person to whom she is most attached, and contrariwise." Games of this
kind are very varied, and still afford many an evening's amusement among
the young people of our country villages during the winter evenings.
1. Journal of Horticulture, 1876, p. 355.
2. Johnston's "Botany of Eastern Borders."
3. "Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words."
4. Johnston's "Botany of Eastern Borders," p. 57.
5. "Botany of Eastern Borders," p. 85.
6. "English Botany," ed. I, iii. p. 3.
7. "Dictionary of Plant Names" (Britten and Holland), p. 145.