Appalachia Rhymes

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

Mary mary quite contrary

Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle-shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.


This is a rhyme I remember from early childhood. My given name is Mary and someone used to say the poem to me…or maybe it was several people who said it to me.

Mary mary quite contrary from appalachia


Whenever I hear the rhyme, I envision myself-little Tipper-walking around Big Grandma and Mamaw’s flower garden. One of my earliest memories is of being with Mamaw in her garden. I looked down and saw a bumblebee that had landed on the collar of my sweater.

I still remember how its stark bright color stood out on the light yellow yarn. Mamaw noticed something had stopped me in my tracks and then she saw the bee and shooed it away. I think she thought I was afraid of it-but I wasn’t. I just somehow realized the loveliness of the bee and the moment of being with Mamaw among her flowers. Since that day the words to the rhyme Mary Mary Quiet Contrary have twined with the memory in my mind.

The book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown The Reason Behind The Rhyme written by Christ Roberts, says the rhyme is indeed about Mary…but which Mary is it? Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, or even Mary the mother of Jesus. The book gives varying information, showing any of the Marys mentioned would work in the poem. However, the one that makes the best sense to me-is the Mary I remember from childhood-me.


*Source: Heavy Words Lightly Thrown The Reason Behind The Rhyme written by Christ Roberts

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  • Reply
    jane bolden
    June 7, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Sweet memories for you. One of my favorites. Recited it many times for my grandchildren.

  • Reply
    Bud Green
    June 6, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    So what is it you say you grow in your garden, Mary Jane, way back up in Wilson Holler?

  • Reply
    Joyce Heishman
    June 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    When I was in the first grade our teacher had us coloring a printed picture. She wanted us to stay within the lines. I couldn’t do it so …. I drew ALL over it. She ask me why and I had no answer. I loved that teacher. She was so disappointed in me. She never said a word, but I could tell.
    That is my “Mary” story. My grandmother would say I acted ugly. Even in my older years the “Mary” sometimes still comes out in me. With God in my life, I know I am still a work in progress

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    We also helped our Grandma in the garden, usually OUR garden, but sometimes hers. When she lived in the bigger house, she had flowers and vegies, but when she moved to the smaller house, she just had flowers in beds bordering the boundary of her front and back yards like a frame around a picture, and it was gorgeous.
    I remember helping her water often, she with the big sprinkling can and me with an old cleaned out tin can with holes punched in the bottom with a nail that I’d fill from a nearby bucket. It was great fun, but then what child doesn’t like playing in/with water. I remember getting much on myself rather than the flowers, but with Grandma, that was usually ok; she didn’t much mind dirt and/or water on a young’un (like some did and still do). She realized it’s to be expected. Wish all thought of it that way.
    Great childhood memory!!!
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    June 6, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    That’s a nice picture of you when you
    were young, reminds me of my firstborn
    daughter. One of the first rhymes we
    taught her was Mistress Mary, Quite
    Contrary. Unless I’m reminded of them,
    I can’t recall the 44 Nursery Rhymes
    she knew before starting to school.
    Thanks for bringing back memories…Ken

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    PS,The picture of you is darling!A big hug.

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Hi Tipper,My Dear daughters name is also Mary and I’m sure nether of you are too contrary.God Bless.

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 11:14 am

    What a sweet picture with the mountains showing in the background. Ahhhh And I am sure you are never contrary!

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 10:59 am

    How very interesting! I remember that rhyme, remember saying it and then again to my children when they were very little. It was a good play on words. Which Mary, I never put that to thought. It, to me, was just a fun rhyme. My Uncle used to say the one about ‘There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forhead, and when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid. I guess I was a mischief maker!

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Mom’s first name was Mary but she was always called her middle name. I thought someone wrote the rhyme for her. Her son-in-law said if God assigned jobs in Heaven, Mom’s would surely be to work in the garden. People used to stop by her house to take a closer look at her Sweet Williams and Scarlet Sage flower beds. She would plant seeds in a perfectly measured bed she dug by hand. Thinking back, that area must have been at least 100 feet, as it ran on both sides of the walk that started at the front porch and ended by the road.

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 9:54 am

    So glad that you have such special memories of this time in your life. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    June 6, 2014 at 8:28 am

    Although I do not have a “Mary” in the family, I too have memories of that rhyme associated with being in the garden with my grandmother – the two most prominent are when I was quite young standing next to a vine we called coral bells (not the one I see when I do an internet search) and another when I’m standing with my Great Grandmother next to a row of Bells of Ireland.
    Grandma, Granny, and Mama said lots of rhymes with me. I said them with my children when they were very young but early in elementary school they learned “fractured” versions and, sadly, those are the ones they remember. The same is true for my granddaughters . . . sigh!

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    June 6, 2014 at 8:20 am

    I like to think of Mary as an outdoor girl…gardening and the keeper of lambs. I just can’t think of the other Mary Tudor, ewwww. My book goes into quite a description of the rhyme and where it originated from, at least in that authors research. Very scary!!
    Did you know that our Mary was a caretaker as well…Oh yes. When Jack and Jill went up the hill and Jack fell down and broke his crown…Mary patched him up thereafter with vinegar and brown paper! Poor Jill just stared agast! No help at all evidently!
    Also, she was quite the cook too…When Humpty-Dumpty had his great fall, and all the Kings horses and all the Kings men couldn’t put him together again..Mary scrambled him up in an great omelet and served it to the King! That Appalachian “waste not, want not” philosophy, I suppose!
    Mary the keeper of the lamb is one of my favorite stories about our Mary. She was born in America. She was the first ever to be recorded by Thomas Edison on his tin foil phonograph.
    Mary was not in my opinion a contrary person atall…I mean Why did the lamb love Mary so? Mary loved the lambs you know!
    Thanks for a great post again Tipper..
    PS..Our silver bells got a bit of rain finally..Now it is a jungle out there..ooooo!

  • Reply
    Paulette Tonielli
    June 6, 2014 at 7:57 am

    What a beautiful memory…

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 6, 2014 at 7:37 am

    Tipper, the Mary that is you has a lovely garden and does not have a contrary bone in her body.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 6, 2014 at 7:34 am

    The poem sounds like it is describing a spoiled Mary for sure.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    June 6, 2014 at 7:17 am

    I loved your memories of “Mary, Mary…”, Tipper. It is interesting, indeed, how a small reminder triggers life’s storehouse of memories. Seeing hydrangeas blooming in my backyard takes me back to my childhood and my mother’s love of that plant. She knew how to have them produce either blue, pink or white blossoms simply by what she fed them. And yes, like you, the old nursery rhymes bring back a flood of memories. One of my favorites (which I now teach to my great grandchildren as I have opportunity to see them) is the game played on toes: “This little pig goes to market, this little pig stays home…” And, back to “Mary, Mary…” we’re glad you’re sharing how your garden grows this year!

  • Reply
    Mary Rutherford
    June 6, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Growing up, this Mary always tried not to be contrary but didn’t always succeed! One time when I was about four I got in trouble for something and got so mad that I tore the artificial flowers off my favorite little white woven basket pocketbook. I loved that pocketbook so much but let my anger get the best of me. I got punished again for doing that although my disappointment was surely punishment enough! Since that day I have tried to stick to growing flowers rather than tearing them up.

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