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. [1]

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:--

"Long purples

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

receptacle, saying:--

"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. [2]

The catkins of the willow are in some counties known as "goslings," or

"goslins,"--children, says Halliwell, [3] 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. [4] 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,

he says:--


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

fruit itself.

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

head." [5]

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

smoking-cane." [6]

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, [7] 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.

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