Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Hemp seed I sow …

In the nineteenth century hemp (Cannabis sativa) seed was widely used by girls in love divination, in southern England and in the Channel Islands.  In Guernsey in the 1880s:

‘A vision of your future husband can … be obtained by the sowing of hemp-seed.  The young maiden must scatter on the ground some hemp-seed, saying:                                                                                                                            Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed grow,                                                                          For my true love to come and mow,                                                                      Having done this she must immediately run into the house to prevent her legs being cut off by the reaper’s sickle, and looking back she will see the longed-for lover mowing the hemp, which has grown so rapidly, and so mysteriously’ [1].

At Wolvercote, Oxfordshire, in the early 1920s:

‘Mrs Calcutt’s mother was probably the last girl to try the charm of sowing hempseed …  She, with a girl friend, went to the churchyard one Christmas Eve at midnight, carrying some hempseed, while throwing it over her shoulder said:                                                                                                                 I sow hempseed,                                                                                                           Hempseed I sow,                                                                                                           He that is to be my husband,                                                                                 Come after me and mow,                                                                                             Not in his best or Sunday array,                                                                                 But in the clothes he wears every day!                                                                       The friend with her was very much frightened; some people said she saw a coffin, but whatever she saw, it was certain she died soon afterwards, and the people in the village evidently connected her death in some way with the visit to the churchyard, as they forbade their daughters to try this charm any more’ [2].

Variations in the custom appear to have been small, the main differences being the date chosen.  Midsummer’s Eve (24 June) seems to have been the date most widely favoured [3], other dates included St Valentine’s Eve (13 February) in Derbyshire and Devon[4], St Mark’s Eve (24 April) in parts of East Anglia [5], and St Martin’s Eve (10 November) in Norfolk [6].

Hemp seed divination on Old Midsummer Eve (4 July) forms a pivotal scene in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders, first published in 1887.  This event appears to be atypical in that his Hintock maidens sowed their seed in dark recesses in the woods, and although the village girls were the main participants, ‘half the parish’ turned up, young men positioning themselves so that after the sowing they would be the first to be seen by their potential lovers.  Presumably Hardy adapted his account to bring it in line with his novel’s woodland setting.

In northeast Scotland a similar practice involved the sowing of lint-[flax]seed (Linum usitatissimum): ‘the maiden had to steal out quietly with a handful of lint-seed, and walk across the ridges of a field, sowing the seed, and repeating the words:                                         Lint-seed I saw ye,                                                   Lint-seed I saw ye,                                                   Lat him it’s to be my lad                                         Come aifter me an pu’ me.                                      On looking over the left shoulder she saw the apparition of him who was to be her mate crossing the ridges, as it were, in the act of pulling flax[7].

1.   J. Stevens-Cox, 1971. Guernsey Folklore recorded in the Summer of 1882, St Peter Port: 10.                                                                                                             2.  A. Parker, 1923.  Oxfordshire village folk-lore, Folk-lore 34: 324.                  3.  A.R. Wright, 1940.  British Calendar Customs: England, 3, London: 12.            4.  A.R. Wright,  1938.  British Calendar Customs: England, 2, London: 152.          5.  Ibid.: 187.                                                                                                                    6. M. Baker, 1974.  Discovering the Folklore of Love and Marriage, Princes Risborough: 6.                                                                                                            7.   W. Gregor, 1874.  An Echo of Olden Time, London: 103

Adapted from Vickery’s Folk Flora, published in April 2019.

Images:  main, F.E. Köhler, Medizinal-Pflantzen, 1887; inset, cultivated flax, Newport, Essex, May 2024.

Updated 27 May 2024.