Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

White deadnettle whistles

In 1991 Jane Harwood kindly sent us plant-lore extracted from Catherine E. Parsons’ unpublished manuscript ‘Horseheath: Some Recollections of a Cambridgeshire Parish’ (1952).  This included:

107‘The girls made whistles … they used the stems of white [dead] nettles [Lamium album] which were soft to cut.  It was easy to make the mouthpiece by cutting off a stem slantwise and shaving a flat on top and it was not hard to make the vent.  Nevertheless, many attempts had to be made before an instrument was produced that would whistle.’

No other record of this practice was known until recently when it was noted in D.C. Watts’  Dictionary of Plant-lore, 2007: 420, that ‘boys made whistles from the stalks’ [of white deadnettle].  Watts gives as his source William Curtis’s Flora Londinensis, 1775-98, where in volume 2, in the text to plate 115, he notes ‘Boys make whistles of the stalks.’  It is possible that Curtis (b.1746) was referring to a pastime then current in the London area, or perhaps he was recalling his childhood in Alton, Hampshire.

Curtis also mentions that the flowers of white deadnettle contain a lot of ‘honey’, and today throughout much of northern Europe children suck this ‘honey’ from the base of the flowers; see the Material Collected page on this website.

Images:  main, detail of pl. 115 in vol. 2 of W. Curtis, Flora Londinensis, 1775-98; inset, Tisbury, Wiltshire, May 2015.