Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Cock or hen?

‘Cock or hen?’, a children’s game played with grasses, seems to be restricted to East Anglia:
‘As children we played a game of “Cock or Hen” with false oat-grass, Arrhenatherum elatius. One would run their clasped fingers up the stem of the grass thus grabbing the spikelets in the hand. If one of the spikelets protruded above the others this constituted the cock, if no “tail” was produced then it was announced as the hen'[1].
In the Croxton area of Norfolk in the mid 1950s and early 1960s: ‘When playing the game of “Cocks and Hens” the spikelets could be grasped and pulled without the need to stop walking. If we were actually playing a game for points the “puller” would guess before pulling a spikelet as to whether it would be a “cock” or “hen”. If s/he is correct it was one point to him/her and it was then the turn of someone else. Alternatively a person would pull a spikelet, hide it behind his/her back, and the other players would guess the sex of the hidden spikelet. Each player who guessed correctly gained a point, and then another player had a pull’ [2].
In the Melton Constable area of north Norfolk, in the 1950s-60s, the game, which is also known in Suffolk [3], was known as ‘hens and chickens'[4].

1. Norfolk Natterjack, August 2002.
2. West Stow, Suffolk, September 2002.
3. Woodbridge, Suffolk, July 2011.
4. West Stow, Suffolk, September 2002.

Addenda

1.  Several people from different parts of the country present at a plant-lore walk in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on 30 September 2014 recalled playing this game during their childhoods.  Thus it appears that it was known beyond East Anglia.

2.  In her Friends on the Roadside, 2021: 7, Tove Bellingham, recalling nature walks in Sweden as a child, writes: ‘We were looking for fun things to do and long grass with wispy tops were favourites.  We used these for a guessing game called “Cockerel, hen or chicken” and to play you need a friend whom you’ll ask to choose either cockerel, hen or chicken.  You then slide your fingers up the straw until you pull the top off.  What you’re left with is either a long wisp; this is the cockerel, the middle sized wisp the hen, and tiddly one the chicken …  There’s a certain technique involved, both in pulling and guessing.’

3.  According to people attending a Wonderful Weeds walk in Tamworth Farm Allotments, Mitcham, Surrey, on 11 June 2023 similar practices are known in Austria and north Italy.

Image: false oat-grass, Welford Road Cemetery, Leicester; November 2014.

Updated 11 June 2023.