The Seeds of Thyme

A study in the origins and evolution of The Seeds of Love and The Sprig of Thyme. (Roud 3)

Tracing the roots of these two songs takes us back in both cases to the late seventeenth century when they had but a single stanza in common.

The Seeds of Love (stanza 10, early nineteenth century)
My garden is run wild,
Where shall I plant anew,
For my bed that once was covered with thyme,
Is all over-run with rue.

The Garden of Thyme (stanza 5, c.1690)
And when my thyme was gone,
And I could plant no new,
The very place where it did grow,
Was over-run with rue.

Although we can't be certain both songs came from the late seventeenth century, if they did it is pretty certain that either they had a common ancestor or that one inspired the other.  Whilst their histories must have become further entwined in the middle of the eighteenth century, tracing their hybridisation with any certainty is extremely difficult due to the convoluted evolution from that point onwards.  This last statement needs further explanation as the chronology appears to be contradictory.  Although The Seeds of Love has been stated on good authority to have been written c1689 we have no copy of the text earlier than 1800, whereas the varied evolution of The Sprig of Thyme is at least partly traceable in print from c1690 to the present day in multiple versions and rewrites.  If we accept The Seeds of Love dates back to the late seventeenth century then the evidence suggests that The Sprig of Thyme acquired most of its Seeds stanzas in the middle of the eighteenth century.  However, if we do not accept this solitary source and take the earliest extant text of Seeds as no earlier than the late eighteenth century then it is quite possibly a rewrite of Sprig.

However, enough conjecture! Let us present the evidence.  The source of the authorship of Seeds comes from the first edition of Dr.  Whittaker's very thorough History of the Parish of Whalley, 1801 (p.318).  Unfortunately, only later editions are available online and these do not contain the required detail.  However, William Chappell in his Popular Music of the Olden Time, 1859, p.521, presents Whittaker's information:

Dr Whittaker tells us that Mrs Fleetwood Habergham, of Habergham Hall, Lancashire, "undone by the extravagance, and disgraced by the vices of her husband" (who squandered his large patrimony, till, in 1689, even the mansion-house and demesne were swallowed up by the foreclosure of a mortgage), "soothed her sorrows by some stanzas, yet remembered among the old people of the neighbourhood, of which the following allusions to the triumphs of her early days, and the successive offers she had rejected, under the emblem of flowers, are simple and not inelegant:"—

The gardener standing by,
Proffered the chuse for me
The pink, the primrose, and the rose,
But I refus'd the three.
The primrose I forsook
Because it came too soon,
The violet I overlook
And vow'd to wait till June.

In June the red rose sprung,
But was no flower for me;
I pluck'd it up, lo! By the stalk,
And planted the willow tree.
The willow I now must wear,
With sorrows twin'd among,
That all the world may know
I falsehood lov'd too long.

Chappell added 'From the circumstances under which they were written, the words may be dated as not long after 1689, and in all probability were written to the tune of Come, open the door, sweet Betty, which was then in the height of its popularity.'

It is unfortunate that Dr Whittaker chose only to give two double stanzas and no further evidence other than tradition that the stanzas were indeed written by Mrs Habergham.  However, if we compare them with the equivalent double stanzas printed c1830 by Pitts and Catnach, both of London, that follow, they are quite different and the language appears to be more self-conscious, high-flown and of an earlier period.  However, Cecil Sharp was not convinced by Whittaker's assertions and thought it more likely Seeds was derived from Sprig.

I Sowed theSeeds of Love

I sowed the seeds of love
It was all in the spring,
In April, May, and June likewise,
When small birds they do sing.
My gardens well planted,
With flowers everywhere,
I had not the liberty to chuse for myself
The flower that I loved so dear.

My gardener he stood by,
I asked him to chuse for me
He chus'd me the violet the lilly and pink,
But those I refused all three,
The violet I forsook
Because it fades so soon,
The lilly and the pink I did o'erlook,
And I vowed I'd stay till June,

In June there's a red rose bud
And that is the flower for me,
For often had I pluck'd at the red rose bud,
Till I gained the willow tree,
The willow tree will twist
And the willow tree will twine,
I wish I was in the young man's arms,
That once had the heart of mine.

My gardener he stood by
He told me to take great care,
For in the middle of a red rose bud,
There grows a sharp thorn there,
I told him I'd take no care
Till I did feel the smart,
But often I plucked at the red rose bud,
Till I pierced it to the heart.

I'll make me a posy of hyson (hyssop)
No other I can touch
That all the world may plainly see,
I love one flower too much,
My garden is run wild
Where I shall plant anew,
For my bed that once was covered with thyme,
Is all over-run with rue.

I locked my garden gate
Resolved to keep the key,
But a young man came a courting me,
And stole my liberty.
Come you false young man
Who left me to complain,
The grass that is trodden under foot,
In time will meet again.

Pitts, Printer wholesale Toy and Marble warehouse, 6, Gt.  St.  Andrew Street, Seven Dials.
[Bodleian Broadside Ballads, Harding B11 (1657)]

I propose to give a more detailed comparison of Mrs Habergham's stanzas and those of the broadside in an appendix, but they have little bearing on the evolution of the two songs.  From these early nineteenth century printings onward there is minimal variety in the texts of the versions, both from print and from oral tradition.  A shorter version The Red Rose Bud was printed in London possibly slightly earlier, with seven quatrains, but all of them are in the longer version.

Much more interesting and complex is the evolution of the sister song The Sprig of Thyme.  As we shall see we do have a seventeenth century version, probably the original, but the only extant copy was reprinted in 1790.  What we do have is the obvious 'Answer' to this conveniently dated 1696 and printed by Alexander Milbourne who was then printing at The Stationer's Arms, Green Arbor Court, in the Little Old Bailey, London, from 1670 to 1697.  He was the successor of his family business dating back to at least 1623.

An Excellent new Song, Called, The Young-Mans Answer To the Maids Garden of TYME

Let no Young-maidens shew their proud disdain,
In slighting Lovers when they're not to blame,
Least by their haughty Pride as I may tell,
They slip their Youth, and so lead Apes in Hell.
To a pleasant New Tune.

Maids that are fair and young,
Why should you thus complain,
Against a Batchellors smooth tongue
When Love is all their aim.

If we should curse or swear,
Or surly to you be,
O then you justly might forbear
A Young-mans company.

You say a young man went
Into your Garden fine,
And there unto your discontent
He pluckt up all your time.

I blame him for the same,
He might have spared some,
Or for the time that he did take,
Plant others in the room.

Come pretty Lass I pray
Let me your Garden view,
And what fine flowers you do want,
Ile plant them o'er a new.

And if you'l try me once,
I doubt not but you'l say,
I thank you heartily young man,
Pray come another day.

And in your Garden fine
A Fountain there does flow,
With pretty bushes all a-round,
That Fountain too does grow.

Fair Maiden let me in,
And then you need not fear,
But I the bushes fine will trim,
Your Fountain too will clear.

And if your time I take,
Ile give you in return,
Cornations of the better sort,
And Flowers of the Sun.

And for your Fountain too,
Thus further I can tell,
Ile put in pritty Fishes there,
Will please you wondrous well,

And in this Pond they'll breed,
For to increase your store,
And if you once but let me in,
You'l nere deny me more.

At length the young Maid then
Consented to my mind,
But said withal, her heart should break
If I should prove unkind.

When I came to the Garden-door,
Said she you'l me undo,
And steal away my precious time,
And leave me nought but Rue.

No no, then I reply'd,
My pretty Maid ne're fear,
For now the Bargain is fast ty'd,
Ile stay from Year to Year.

Your Fountain ile new stock,
Your Garden ile new plant;
There's nothing that is requisite,
My pretty maid shall want.

Now Maids be ruled by me,
Nere use Young-men unkind,
But take the first that comes to hand,
If he be to your mind.

Printed by and for A M 1696
(Pepys Ballads, Vol. 5, p.246, UCSB EBBA 22081)

Whilst the seventeenth century printing of the ballad that inspired the above 'Answer' appears not to be currently extant in all of the major collections, what must surely be a reprint was published c1790 in The Morpeth Wedding Garland, item 3, with no imprint, but probably printed at Alnwick or Newcastle.  Item 1 is The Morpeth wedding; or, The House turn'd up-side down.  Item 2 is The fam'd young Bouster.

The Garden of Thyme, giving good Advice for every Virgins Care.

While Flowers in their tender Buds do grow
Let no young Men into your Garden go;
Lest these young Buds upon their tender Stems
Should be cropp'd off by these unruly Men.

You pretty Maidens all,
That now are in your Prime,
Befure you look your Gardens well,
Let no man steal your Thyme:
For I delight in my Thyme,
That flourish'd Night and Day,
Then came a Young Man craftily,
And stole my Thyme away.

This young man oft did come,
With Words most sweet and fine,
And stole into my garden,
And pluckt up all my Thyme:
And when that he had stole my Thyme,
The young Man came no more,
To look for Thyme in my Garden,
As he had done before.

And when my Thyme was gone,
And I could plant no New,
The very Place where it did grow,
Was over-run with Rue;
The Rue it will run over all,
If that you'll give it scope,
But I've preserv'd one little Plant,
To plant in Time of Hope.

The Gilly-flower is sweet,
That grows near to the Wall,
And so is the Yellow-pegell,
But Thyme is the best of all:
But still cry'd out this pretty Maid,
Stand up my Hope, said she,
For if my Hope should chance to fade,
Then quickly I should die.

I got my garden digged,
And planted it a-new,
My Hope got Root in little Time,
And up I pluck'd the Rue.
And when it was but newly set,
With Hope and Thyme all round,
Fine Flowers then grew prettily,
With Marjoram on the Ground.

I view'd my Garden well,
And found both Hope and Thyme,
Did both begin to flourish,
As they did in their Prime:
Then the young Men they came again
My garden for to see,
But I kept shut my garden Door,
Lest they should ruin me.

They found my Thyme preserv'd,
Then one amongst the Rest,
Did beg of me most heartily,
To grant him one Request;
That he might my gardener be,
Then he would take such Care,
If I would let him keep the Key,
He'd keep my Garden clear.

Up on this Promise made,
That he would careful be,
This young Man of my Garden Door,
I made him keep the Key:
He digg'd my garden round about,
And planted it a-new,
Of Hope and Thyme he kept good store,
But not one Bit of Rue.

(National Library of Scotland website The Word on the Street LC2890 (10), item 108682542)

It is certain from the above and the 'Answer' that the allegories are at least in part sexual, particularly in the 'Answer', and that in Seeds, the more high-flown piece, the allegories are toned down to relate to love in general and are at least not overtly sexual.

Although the general ideas expressed in The Garden of Thyme are parallel to those in Sprig, only the first and third double stanzas were utilised in later versions.

By the 1760s multiple printed versions were beginning to appear as stall copies, and no doubt also popularised in the pleasure gardens, all commencing with stanzas from The Garden of Thyme but followed by a mixture of stanzas found in Seeds, but rarely in the same order.  Here follow some of the more significant.

The Maid's Lament for the loss of her Maiden-head
(Item 3 in Four Excellent Songs, printed and sold by William Forrest at the head of the Cow-gate, Edinburgh, 1766)

All you Maidens Fair,
That glory in your prime;
Take care and keep your gardens clean,
Let no man steal your thyme.

When I was a maiden fair,
I flourished night and day,
And there came by a proper youth
Stealt all my thyme away.

My thyme it is all spent,
For I can plant no new,
The very place where my thyme grew;
And 'tis all laid o'er with rue.

Stand up my little hope,
And do not me deny;
If this young man come not back again,
I'm sure undone am I.

The Gardener sent his word
And he gave his choice of three;
The (pink, the violet) and the prim-rose,
And she denied all three.

The prim-rose she denied,
It's an herb that grow too soon;
The tulips is over wet,
And duly wet full June.

Forsaken folk must live,
Altho' it be in pain;
And the grass that's trodden under feet,
Th(r)o' time will rise again.

[British Library 11621 b.6 (13)]

It is obvious that even as early as 1766 this garbled oral version was being reprinted in street literature.  The first 3 stanzas are found in The Garden of Thyme and stanzas 3, 5, 6 and 7 are in Seeds.

From about the same period comes the following.

THE BRITISH HARMONY.  Part the Second.  Being a Choice Collection of most of the New favourite Songs Sung This and Last Season at Both the Theatres, Vaux-hall, Ranelagh, Sadler's-Wells.  &c.  (Item 11 of 16.)

The Encouraging Gardener

Come all you pretty Maids,
That are now in your prime,
I'll have you all beware, and have you Garden clear,
And let no one steal your Thime.
For once I had Thyme enough,
And it grew both Night and Day,
And there came by a jolly post-boy,
And stole all my Thyme away.
When all my Thyme was gone,
And I had not planted any more,
In the very same place where my Thyme grew,
Was all gone over with Rue.
O Rue is a runny runny root,
A root that runs underneath,
O I'll pluck up that runny runny root,
And plant a jolly old tree.
Stand up you jolly old tree,
And tell no man dare touch,
That all the world may plainly see,
I bore one flower too much,
My gardener standing by,
He offered to choose for me,
He chose me out the Lilly, the Violet, and the Pink,
But I refus'd all three.
The pink I refus'd the first,
Because it would fade so soon,
The Violet and the Lilly I overlook
And resolv'd to tarry till June.
In June there is a red rosy bud,
And that is the flower for me,
Often times I have aim'd at the red rosy bud,
But I join'd the willow tree.

(Bodleian Library, Harding Collection 8.11, available on ECCO)

By 1800 the more usual title printed on slips was now Sprig of Thyme and even greater variety and combination of stanzas was evident, but the first two or three stanzas were still those of The Garden of Thyme, followed by a whole catalogue of selections from the general Seeds stock.  Another change was that stanzas were now being printed in quatrains as opposed to the earlier double stanzas.  Of the following the first was printed in Manchester and the other two were printed in Ireland.

Sprig of Thyme
Printed by Swindells of Manchester in the early nineteenth century.  (Manchester Central Library, Ballads Vol.  5, p.  343)

You virgins far and near,
That are just in your prime
I'd have you keep your gardens clear,
Let no one steal your thyme.

Once I had a sprig of thyme,
And it flourish'd night and day,
Until there came a false young man,
And he stole my thyme away.

Since now my thyme's all gone,
No more I can it see,
The man that stole my thyme away
He did prove false to me.

Since now my thyme's all gone,
& I can plant no new,
In the very place where my thyme grew
It's over-run with rue.

Rue rue runs over all,
But so it shall not seem,
For I'll plant again in the same place,
And call it the willow green.

Willow willow I must wear,
Willow willow is my doom,
Since my false love's forsaken me,
And left me here to roam.

A gardener standing by,
Three flowers he offered me,
The lily, pink, and red rose bud,
But I refus'd all three.

The pink is a flower sweet,
And so is the rose in June,
And so is a pretty girl's virgin flower
If it is not cropt too soon.

Black-Eyed Susan, together with The Pretty Irish Boy and Sprig of Thyme.
Garland Printed at W Kelly's, Waterford.

Sprig of Thyme

Come all you maidens fair and young,
That flourish in your prime,
Be wise beware keep your garden clear,
Let no man steal your thyme.

When a young maiden I had thyme enough,
It grew both night and day,
Till at length a brisk young sailor bold,
Stole all my thyme away.

But now my thyme is near all gone,
And I can plant no new,
In the very place my thyme should grow,
It is all over run with rue.

A gardener standing by
I bid him choose for me,
He choose the violet, lilly, pink,
But I refused all three.

The violet first I did refuse,
Because it fades too soon,
The sweet rose is the flower for me,
Thinks I I'll wait till June.

The gardener's son then said to me,
I'd have you take good care,
For in the middle of the red rose,
A thorn sharp grows there.

But I'll pluck off the red rose top,
And plant the willow tree,
That all the world may plainly see,
My true love slighted me.

My parents are displeased with me,
For being led astray,
Many a dark and cloudy morning,
Turns out a shiny day.

Forsaken maidens they must live,
And so must I in vain,
The grass that's trampled underfoot,
In time will grow again.

There are fine boats sailing here,
And steam carriages on the line,
I wish I was in my love's arms,
That stole this heart of mine. 

(Garland in The Irish Traditional Music Archive)
Here we see commonplaces being added in from elsewhere in stanzas 8 and 10.

Sprig of Thyme
(Slip by Brereton of Dublin c1860, in the National Library of Ireland)

Come all you maids where e'r you be,
That flourished in your prime, prime,
Be wise beware.  Keep your garden clear,
Let no man steal your time, time.

For when your time is pas'd and gone,
They care no more for you,
There is not a place where your thyme grows waste
But it spreads all o're with rue, rue.

When I was a maid both fair and coy,
I flourished in my prime, prime,
Til a tall young man came in
And stole this heart of mine, mine.

The gardiner's son being standing by,
Three gifts he gave to me, me,
The bitter rue, the violet blue,
And red rose that is three, three.

But I'll cut the red rose top,
And plant the willow green, green,
Its then the world may plainly see,
My love has slighted me, me.

Forgotten girls they must live,
Altho' the live in pain, pain,
The grass that's mowed in yonder field,
In time will spring again, again.

My parents they were angry,
That I was led astray,
But many's the dark and cloudy morn
Turned out a sunny day.

There is fine boat sailing here my dear,
And more on the river Rhine, Rhine
For I to be rolled in the arms of my love,
And he to be rolled in mine, mine.

The wind of those cold winter nights
And drinking of strong wine,
And kissing of those ruby lips,
That stole this heart of mine, mine.

I have corrected some of Brereton's usual careless errors, and the version is obviously based on the Kelly version that precedes it.

Other ballads on the general theme were also beginning to appear in the eighteenth century.  The following is an example from c1775 printed in a Darlington garland.

The Posie of Thyme
Song 4 of 6 in A Garland Containing Six excellent New Songs [British Library, 1078 f.16 (15)].

It was in the merry Month of May,
When the Flowers were all in their Prime!
A pretty damsel young and gay,
Was gathering a Posie of Thyme.

As sure as the Thyme grows wild,
In April, May and June.
My dearest Love has proved to me unkind,
And has ruin'd me quite in my bloom.

But since he is gone to Sea,
And blasted my youthful prime,
I never never more shall have ease;
So I will wear the Posie of Thyme.

In the County of Stafford I was Born,
Near Newcastle under line;
Pretty Maidens they laugh me to scorne,
For wearing the Posie Thyme.

The Time it goes swiftly away,
And the Tide for no man will stay,
May the Time and the Tide with him side,
And send my dear Love from the Sea.

May the Heavens protect him from Harm,
Be his Gaurdian ye Angels devine;
For if I had my dear Baby in my Arms,
I wou'd wander the length of my Time.

Hugh Stephenson I will bid adue,
And my sorrows to you I'll resign,
Since my dearest Love hav prov'd unkind,
I am weary Woman weary of my Time.

This ballad must also have entered oral tradition as quite different versions commencing with the fourth stanza here were printed by Collard of Bristol The Posy of Time, and one without imprint The Poesy of Thyme, both in the Madden Collection.  An earlier version was printed by the Dicey-Marshall dynasty at Aldermary Church Yard.


The Seeds of Love and The Sprig of Thyme have both been equally popular in oral tradition and both are well-known even today.  They both have an equal number of stock stanzas, a round dozen.  The biggest difference is that versions of Seeds usually have a very stable set of stanzas, often appearing in the same order, whereas Sprig versions show much greater variety and tendency towards shunting lines around and attracting stanzas from other laments.  Another difference is that the Seeds title is extremely stable whereas about half of the Sprig versions have been given different titles.  Regarding these two songs having been catalogued and indexed as a single song, this is perfectly understandable as they have been hybridised since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, but where the stable first or first and second stanzas are present in either song, which is almost all versions, they are easily identifiable as one or the other.  When the Roud Index was first devised it was agreed amongst interested parties that where two or more songs held material in common, if that material formed more than half of each song, the songs should be given the same number.  In this case, even using early printed versions as the yardstick, it was clear that most versions had two thirds or more of their stanzas in common, thus justifying the decision to catalogue both variants under Roud 3, despite their introductory stanzas being different.

Dungbeetle - 6.8.21

ECCO = Eighteenth Century Collections Online

UCSB EBBA = University College Santa Barbabra, English Broadside Ballads Archive


The Seeds of Thyme, Part 2.

In Part 1 I largely conducted the study assuming Whittaker’s attribution of Seeds to Fleetwood Habergham as a fact.  Now I present other possibilities if not probabilities.  We need to ask certain vital questions, in the absence of solid evidence, in order to at least consider all of the options. I have not been able to obtain a copy of the first edition (1801) of Whittaker, which is apparently the only edition containing this information (later editions are online).  It would appear that in reproducing Whittaker’s assertions it was Chappell who ascribed the four stanzas to Seeds, as they appeared together in the common extant Seeds broadside printed by Catnach and by Pitts.  However, all four stanzas also appear together in an earlier printed version of Sprig, The Encouraging Gardener as sung at the pleasure gardens and theatres c.1770.  Here follow the four stanzas in each for comparison.

The Encouraging Gardener

My gardener standing by,
He offered to choose for me,
He chose me out the lilly, the violet, and the pink,
But I refus’d all three.
The pink I refus’d the first,
Because it would fade so soon,
The violet and the lilly I overlookt,
And resolv’d to tarry till June.
In June there is a red rosy bud,
And that is the flower for me,
Often times I have aimed at the red rosy bud,
But I join’d the willow tree.
Stand up you jolly old tree,
And tell no man dare touch,
That all the world may plainly see,
I bore one flower too much.


The gardener standing by,
Proffered to chuse for me
The pink, the primrose and the rose,
But I refus’d the three.
The primrose I forsook
Because it came too soon,
The violet I overlookt
And vow’d to wait till June.
In June the red rose sprung,
But was no flower for me;
I pluck’d it up, lo! by the stalk,
And planted the willow tree.
The willow I now must wear,
With sorrows twin’d among,
That all the world may know
I falsehood lov’d too long.

No other poetry written by Fleetwood Habergham appears to be extant, though several websites present her as a poet and present different full versions of Seeds under various titles as her work, obviously influenced by Whittaker, Chappell, and Harland’s Lancashire Ballads.  Cecil Sharp certainly was somewhat sceptical of the claims.

The fact is Sprig, with its sexual theme, has a reasonably clear evolutionary thread from c.1690 with the new more amatory themed stanzas being added in the eighteenth century.  The two introductory stanzas are quite stable in Sprig versions but the two new introductory stanzas in Seeds versions make their earliest appearance on the Pitts/Catnach broadsides, and from then on we get both types existing side by side both in print and in oral tradition.  It is worth pointing out the significant selection of stanzas by Whittaker.

The logical answer would surely be, because it wasn’t Seeds he was presenting, but Sprig.

Reading through all of the versions the symbolism in most of the plants mentioned is quite obvious.  However, as the ballads evolve they become corrupted, new plants are added and the meanings can become confused.  The following is a rough guide only:


Without corroborating evidence for Whittaker’s assertion I must concur with more recent opinion that, despite repeated assertions on various websites, we should accept that Seeds was more likely a new rewrite c.1830 using the theme and material from the multiple versions of Sprig, albeit with a more amatory rather than sexual emphasis; at least until further evidence can be found.  If this thesis is correct it shows a gradual sanitising of what in the seventeenth century was obvious sexual allegory toned down somewhat for the eighteenth century upmarket theatres, culminating in the fully sanitised Pitts/Catnach broadside and introduced into the burletta The Loan of a Lover in the 1830s.

Dungbeetle - 9.8.21