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May Nursery Rhyme Mystery
Children's favorite seems to defy botanical sense
Eric Shackle (Shack)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-01 11:59 (KST)   

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Generations of small children in English-speaking countries have mistakenly believed they could gather nuts in the merry month of May. That's because they were taught to sing and dance to this famous nursery rhyme:
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.
The trouble is you can't find any nuts to gather in May. The macadamia tree in our Sydney backyard yielded its last delicious nut from this year's crop months ago.

In the northern hemisphere, spring has sprung. England's chestnut trees are in flower, and won't drop their shiny brown conkers until autumn. (In North America too, nuts fall in the fall).

Instead of singing about Nuts IN May, try singing Nuts AND May, which perhaps makes more sense. English hawthorn trees, commonly called May trees, are covered with red or white blossom in late April/early May. The 180-ton ship Mayflower carried the Pilgrim Fathers across the Atlantic in 1620.

In 1923, the U.S. state of Missouri adopted the blossom of the hawthorn as its official floral emblem: "The hawthorn, the blossom of the tree commonly called the 'red haw' or 'wild haw' and scientifically designated as crataegus, is declared to be the floral emblem of Missouri, and the state Department of Agriculture shall recognize it as such and encourage its cultivation on account of the beauty of its flower, fruit and foliage."

A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame may have got it right: "That's right," said Eeyore. "Sing. Umty-tiddly, umty-too. Here we go gathering Nuts and May. Enjoy yourself."

Not everyone agrees that the song originally mentioned nuts at all. Some historians claim children used to gather knots of flowers for festive occasions, so they would have sung "here we go gathering KNOTS and May."

Others suggest that the popular version, Nuts IN May is correct, and that the nuts in question were pignuts, a now little-known edible tuber commonly found in British woodlands.

"The custom of grubbing for Earthnuts, or Pignuts, is as ancient as mankind itself," says Cornish environmentalist Simon the Scribe.

"Although these tasty tubers are beloved of pigs (hence the name) they are a most unusual and rewarding woodland snack and there was a time when they were a popular nibble for country children on their way to and from school.

"The fern-like leaves appear along with the Lesser Celandine in the spring. During May and July they develop umbellifer heads with white flowers not unlike Cow Parsley. According to Gerard and others the Dutch once ate them 'boiled and buttered, as we do parseneps and carrots.'"

Elizabeth Hatchell of Shropshire, in England, has eaten them, but was "not impressed," she wrote in an Internet forum. "I disagree with the 'nuts and may' or 'knots of may' responses, having always understood it to refer to the pignut Conopodium majus, also called the ground nut, cat nut, earth nut and earth chestnut. Their 'nuts' are certainly ready in May.

"To quote Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, 'Digging for the dark-brown tubers of the pignut used to be a common habit amongst country children. The nuts are usually between six and eight inches under the earth, and eaten raw, their white flesh has something of the crisp taste of young hazelnuts ... they would be cooked in a Dutch oven with rabbit joints.'

"As they are only to be found in long established grassland they are now a rare plant. We have them in our own meadow, but you could easily overlook them as a small version of the common cow-parsley."

Ignoring the pedants, future generations of children will no doubt happily sing those (apparently) wrong words:
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.
... even if they live in the tropics and never experience a frosty morning.

Come to think of it, kids in the tropics COULD gather at least one kind of nut -- the coconut -- in May, and in the rest of the year too, since there are no distinct seasons in the tropics (just wet and dry spells).

FOOTNOTE: May 1 is also celebrated as Labor Day in many countries. North and South Korean labor unions have arranged a joint May Day festival, including a friendly game of Soccer, in Changwon, about 400 kilometers (248 miles). southeast of Seoul, from April 29 to May 2.
Read the full nursery rhyme here.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Eric Shackle

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