Posted by James Briggs on October 14, 2004
Just after we discussed this topic the same question was asked on the Q&A pages of The Times. As we did, the opinion was that 'nuts' was originally 'knots'. I offered a reason for the 'cold & frosty' bit - weather was much colder when this nursery rhyme evolved; skating on the Thames was often possible.
Today, a very different suggestion was posted. I pass it on for interest/information.
I disagree with the "nuts and may" or "knots of may" responses offered (Q&A, October 11, 12), having always understood it to refer to the pignut Conopodium majus, also called the ground nut, cat nut, earth nut and earth chestnut. Their "nuts" are certainly ready in May.
To quote Richard Mabey's Flora Britannica, "Digging for the dark-brown tubers of the pignut used to be a common habit amongst country children. The nuts are usually between six and eight inches under the earth, and eaten raw, their white flesh has something of the crisp taste of young hazelnuts... they would be cooked in a Dutch oven with rabbit joints," As they are only to be found in long established grassland they are now a rare plant. We have them in our own meadow, but you could easily overlook them as a small version of the common cow-parsley. I have tried eating them, but was not impressed.
Elizabeth Hatchell, Ludlow, Shropshire