The earliest known printing of this rhyme appears in Thomas Tusser’s 1573 Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, an instructional book of poetry that was filled with month-by-month farming tips. It goes:
“Sweete April showers
Doo bring Maie Flowers.”
However, chances are you might be reading this proverb all wrong. Today, many of us interpret the rhyme literally: “Rain in the month of April brings flowers in the month of May.” Which, while technically true, probably wasn’t what the phrase meant back then. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the rhyme may have had a different meaning in 16th century Britain. For context, read it this way:
In the poem, Tusser wasn’t vaguely referring to any old flower that pops up in the month of May. Rather, he was likely referring to a specific variety of blooms called “mayflowers” — plants such as the marsh marigold, hawthorn, primrose, rowan, and the cuckooflower.
In Renaissance Britain, the blossoms of these “mayflowers” carried special significance, as they were associated with the holiday of “May Day.” The holiday is still celebrated in up to 66 countries today — have you frolicked around a maypole recently? — but the festivities were a much bigger deal during Tusser’s time. And these mayflowers were always a centerpiece of the celebration.
In Britain, people celebrated the holiday by going “a-maying,” gathering boughs of newly-flowered hawthorn plants and hanging them over their home’s doorways. Young children would wear garlands of marsh marigold around their heads. Local villages would select one special young girl to be the “May Queen” — also called the “Flower Bride” — and would crown her in a resplendent display of mayflowers. In later years, people would leave “May baskets” of seasonal blossoms at the doors of their friends and neighbors.
It’s these flowers — which bloom at the dawn of British spring and were used as special holiday decorations — that the rhyme was likely referring to.
Over time, though, this specific meaning was lost. For that, some writers blame the Puritans. During the Interregnum, a period from 1649 to 1660, Puritans took control of Britain’s parliament and banned holidays such as Easter and Christmas. Mayday celebrations, which had pagan roots, were especially reviled, and anybody taking part in the floral festivities was punished.
Meanwhile, in America, Puritans in Massachusetts refused to import May Day festivities to the New World. (Ironic, considering they famously arrived on a ship called “The Mayflower”). As a result, May Day never really caught on in America. And, despite returning to Britain after the Interregnum, the holiday never reclaimed the same cultural foothold it once boasted. Over time, it appears that the special meaning of the rhyme became diluted and came to be interpreted more broadly.
But is the modern rhyme factual?
On a surface level, sure. But, unfortunately, the modern interpretation of the rhyme doesn’t hold much water.
Rain showers in April, of course, help springtime flowers and other plants grow in the northern hemisphere. But generally speaking, the timing of rainfall does not dictate when a plant starts flowering. Temperature does.
Multiple studies show that flowers blossom when temperatures warm to a certain “sweet spot,” not because of the timing of rainfall. According to biologist Steven Penfield, “It seems that plants aim to flower not at a particular time of year, but when the optimal temperature for seed-set is approaching.” Flower blossoms, after all, are fragile reproductive structures: Plants will bloom when the ideal environmental conditions for reproduction have peaked.
As climate change accelerates, these temperatures have been hitting the “sweet spot” earlier and earlier. As part of a 2013 study in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers compared when 32 plant species native to Massachusetts began to flower. According to records from the 1850s, the flowers bloomed around May 15. But by the 2000s, the average bloom occurred one and a half weeks earlier: On May 4. Other species saw even more drastic swings. According to Carla Correa at FiveThirtyEight, “records initiated by Henry David Thoreau in 1852 noted that the highbush blueberry had flowered in mid-May; in 2012, it flowered April 1.”
None of this is probably any surprise to gardeners. Anybody who has watched their flowers bloom during a warm wintry spell — also called a “false spring” — knows that temperature, not rainfall, determines when a flower starts to show its true colors.
And that’s not the only problem with the rhyme. The proverb becomes even less true when you start looking at weather patterns. Anybody in the American South knows that flowers begin to bloom much earlier than May. In fact, this year, spring leaves started appearing in southern Georgia by late January. And anyone with a rain gauge will know that April is, in fact, rarely the wettest month of the year in the United States. Overall, April is the fifth wettest month of the year in the U.S. The wettest? June. (To be fair, this varies widely depending where you live.)
The rhyme’s trustworthiness remains inconsistent even if you cross the pond. April is not the rainiest month in Britain. And if you hop next door and visit Ireland? It’s actually the driest. And the proverb completely collapses the second you jet over to Australia, where springtime flourishes in September and October.
Perhaps we should update the rhyme to:
Can bring mayflowers.
To speak factually:
Flowers tend to bloom,
Because April’s temperatures boom
But that doesn’t really roll off the tongue the same way, does it?
Featured image credit: jeremybishop/ Unsplash