Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


Until about the Second World War the making of cowslip (Primula veris) balls – tissty-tossties – which could be made to foretell the future was a popular childhood pastime. Gertrude Jekyll, in her Children & Gardens (1908), described how these were made:
‘You prepare the flowers by cutting the stalks just under the heads, and stretch a bit of very fine string by tying it to the backs of two chairs … Then you take the prepared flowers one by one and make them ride along the string, heads downwards. When there are as many on the string as you think will be enough to make a ball, you press them up together as they will go, bring up the two ends of the string and tie them.’
In Herefordshire early in the 20th century the balls were tossed while reciting: ‘Rich man, poor man, beggar man, farmer, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, thief’, to indicate the occupation of a future lover. Or, the ball might be tossed to ‘Tisty-tosty, tell me true, Who shall I be married to? followed by a list of potential suitors [1]. Similarly, in west Dorset, in c.1930, the ‘Tinker, tailor’ rhyme would be recited, and the occupation of the lover was recited as the final flower fell from it.
In the Severn Vale, Gloucestershire, in the 1920s and 30s, cowslip balls were tossed to the rhyme:
‘Tisty tosty cowslip ball; tell me where you are going to fall?
Dursley, Uley, Coaley, Cam; Frampton, Fretherne, Arlingham’
and the suitor was expected to come from the village named [when the ball fell?].
Early in the 20th century girls in Wales tossed cowslip balls using only their right hands to predict life expectancy; the ball fell at the fatal number [2].

1. E.M. Leather, The Folk-lore of Herefordshire, 1912: 63.
2. M. Trevelyan, Folk-lore & Folk-stories of Wales, 1909: 97.

Adapted from: R. Vickery, Customs of the keys, Kew, Spring 2001: 10-11.

Images: main, O.W. Thome, Flora von Deutschland, Osterreich und der Schweiz, 1885; inset, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, April 2023.

Updated 29 April 2023.