I Had a Little Nut Tree
DESCRIPTION: "I had a little nutmeg, nothing would it bear But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear. The King of Spain's daughter came to visit me And all for the sake of my little nut tree." "Her dress was all of crimson.... She asked me for my nutmeg...."
EARLIEST DATE: 1939 (Linscott); first printing appears to have been in one of the Tom Thumb songbooks (n.d. but c. 1790)
KEYWORDS: royalty food courting
FOUND IN: US(NE)
REFERENCES (5 citations):
Linscott, pp. 210-211, "I Had a Little Nut Tree" (1 text, 1 tune)
Opie-Oxford2 381, "I had a little nut tree" (2 texts)
Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #130, p. 106, "(I had a little nut tree)"
Jack, p. 83, "I Had a Little Nut Tree" (1 text)
Dolby, p. 53, "I Had a Little Nut Tree" (1 text)
NOTES: Folklorists, ever desperate for an event upon which to hang a song, have connected this to the visit of Juana (Joanna) of Castile (the future Juana the Mad, 1479-1555, queen of Castile from 1505), the mother of the future Emperor Charles V, who visited England in 1506 during the reign of Henry VII. Apparently, according to the Opies, this hypothesis was adopted in Edith Sitwell's 1946 Fanfare for Elizabeth, who pictures it being sung to the daughters of Henry VIII.
This has the usual problems. For starters, Juana's father Ferdinand of Aragon was not King of Spain; he was King of Aragon, and it was not until Juana succeeded him in 1516 that Spain was properly a united kingdom. (Though, in fairness, Ferdinand was regent of Castile after his wife's death, so one might loosely call him King of Spain.)
Problem #2 is the dating; there is no hint of the existence of the song at the time of Juana's visit.
Problem #3 is the word "nutmeg"; the nutmeg tree grows natively only in parts of the Molucca Islands. Europeans didn't even discover them until the late sixteenth century (see the notes to "Of All the Birds"), and they could not have been known in England at the time of Juana's visit. Possibly there was some word other than "nutmeg" used in the original version, or there was a meaning for "nutmeg" which has been so completely forgotten that it does not appear in dictionaries, but if so, what?
It's also worth noting that, even if you project this song back 250 years before the earliest known version, there is still no real reason to connect it to Juana. Why not connect it to, say, Catherine of Aragon, Juana's sister, who happened to marry the son of Henry VII? (Dolby, in fact does so.)
In the incidentals department: I learned this song somewhere along the line, I think from my mother, and my tune is not Linscott's (and I know of no other printed traditional tune).
Whatever the origin of this item, it has inspired various imitations and parodies. Walter de la Mare, Come Hither, revised edition, 1928; #208, prints two under the collective title "Two Nut Trees." The first, credited to "Thomas Anon," simply adds a few lines. The second, by Edith Sitwell, is an independent poem about "The King of China's daughter," but clearly dependent upon this, because it also mentions nutmeg trees and the courting of the princess. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.3
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.