Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

An even ash …

In rural areas ‘even’ ash (Fraxinus excelsior) leaves – leaves which lacked terminal leaflets and therefore had an even number of leaflets – were used in love divination.

In the earliest record, from Wales in 1813, young people searched for an even-leaf and ‘the first of either sex that finds one calls out ”Cyniver”, and is answered by the first of the other that succeeds; and these two, if the omen fails not, are to be joined in wedlock.’

This form of divination has not been recorded elsewhere, but 18 years later the more usual form of divination was recorded from Dorset:  ‘The ash leaf is frequently invoked by young girls as a matrimonial oracle in the following way:  The girl who wishes to divine who her future lover or husband is to be plucks an even ash leaf, and holding it in her hand, says: “The even ash is in my hand, the first I meet shall be my man.”  Then putting it into her glove, adds: ”The even ash is in my glove, the first I meet shall be my love.” And lastly, into her bosom saying: ”The even ash leaf in my bosom. the first I meet shall be my husband.” Soon after which the future lover or husband will be sure to make his appearance.’

In 1976 a 52-year-old Dorset farmer’s wife recorded how she used even ash leaves when she was a schoolgirl: ‘Start at the bottom leaflet on the left-hand side and say: An even ash is in my hand/The first I meet will be my man/ If he don’t speak and I don’t speak/This even ash I will not keep.  As each word is said count a leaflet around the leaf until the rhyme is completed … When the rhyme is finished continue by reciting the alphabet until the bottom right hand leaflet is reached.  The letter given to this leaflet gives the initial of your boyfriend.  Two or three leaves may be used so that you get a greater range of letters.’

Although the practice seems to have been most frequent in Dorset and adjacent counties it was also known in Northumberland in the 1840s, where after completing the rhyme the leaf was placed in the enquirer’s left shoe.  And, in County Donegal: ‘A girl carries a[n ash] leaf with an even number of leaflets.  The first man she meets she asks the name of.  His Christian name will be that of her future husband.’

Adapted from R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995: 15, and Ash lore, Quarterly Journal of Forestry 108: 119, 2014.

Images: main, Ambleside, Cumbria, May 2014; inset, Great Malvern, Worcestershire, June 2019.

Updated 19 June 2019.