The other day I spotted some snowberries in the hedge of a city terrace and it took me right back to my childhood in the country and how we played with any natural materials that came to hand.
Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) are also called waxberries as they look a lot like white candle wax. Their amusement value for me was simply dropping them on the path and stamping on them, as they make such a glorious “pop!”
The little pink flowers are pretty, too…
Then there were the flea darts we used to throw at each other, mainly because they would cling to woolly jumpers if you got it right and they landed point-first – a bit like a mini version of throwing the javelin.
Flea darts are wild wall barley (Hordeum murinum) and we had it in the garden and the school playground. I read a description somewhere that this is “Wild grass found on school playing fields, usually with fleas resident. Plucked and thrown at poor children to emphasise their lack of worth.”
Where did THAT come from? We were all poor and we were all throwers and thrown-at. It was just fun. I do remember seeing the little black fleas, though.
Then there were other weapons – peashooters and bows and arrows. There are probably many sources for these but I used hollow mallow stems for the peashooters (also used as blow-pipes for the flea darts). We had a sturdy “tree mallow” (Lavatera arborea) in the garden. Interestingly the word “mauve”, as in the colour, is French for mallow.
I used elder branches for bows and arrows. I wouldn’t recommend them, though, as they were soft and bendy and had no strength. That was why I used elder – because we had one in the garden and I could break off branches with my bare little hands.
On the “Cowboys and Indians” front, I also made a little “tee-pee” (or tipi as they say now) from bean sticks covered with an old bed-sheet. The bean sticks were bamboo, but I see the website from which I sourced the illustration suggests locally-sourced hazel or sweet chestnut.
Then, of course, there were conkers (horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum). On the recommendation of a neighbour last week, I now have a bowl of new conkers in the house in an attempt to keep spiders away.
But as a child I used conkers simply for the game, poking a hole through the biggest conker I could find and knotting a shoe lace through it (or string). Then we all competed in the playground, swinging the conker at a rival’s to try to smash it.
Some people said roasting the conker or putting vinegar on it made it tougher, but that sounds like cheating to me.
I think we used a simple scoring system, so that a “six-er” had destroyed six other conkers, although Wikipedia suggests a more complex system where if a “three-er” breaks a “two-er” it becomes a “six-er” by assimilating the rival’s victories.
In autumn we also played with fallen sycamore seeds, throwing them into the air and watching them spiral to the ground. We called them helicopters or “whirlybirds”.
When I was in more of a girly mood, I would squeeze ivy-leaved toadflax flowers to see the tiny dragon’s teeth or use a bindweed flower full of water as a drinking cup for my dolls.
Finally, we put blades of grass between our thumbs and blew to make a trumpeting sound, and in our particular infants’ school we stuck big rose thorns on our noses with spit and ran around calling ourselves rhinos…
We certainly knew how to enjoy ourselves in those days!
You may also like to read An apology to nature from my childhood self…