Cuckoo Flower

One wildflower with some of the most beautiful common names is arguably the Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis). Cuckoo Flowers are so named because they begin to blossom at the same time Cuckoo birds arrive to the British Isles in Spring. The other common names for this lovely, little plant tell us about its habitat, uses, association with heritage, and also feature a little bit of rude botany.

The plants have delicate, four-petaled flowers of white, pink and lilac. The cup-shaped flowers give them the common name “Lady’s Smock”. Their leaves are pinnate, meaning they are divided along the main central vein – a bit like a feather. They produce long, thin fruits, which look like an extension of the flower stem.

Cuckoo Flowers are perennial herbs from the Brassica family. The Latin name Cardamine pratensis tells you a lot about this plant. The “Cardamine” genus is otherwise known as the Bittercresses, and if you were to pick and eat a Cuckoo Flower, you would notice that iconic cress taste. ”Pratensis” is Latin for “meadow”, which is exactly where you would find them.

As the name suggests, this “Meadow Cress” has been used as a substitute for watercress in foods. The plant is completely edible and the younger leaves have a wonderful peppery taste. It was also used in traditional medicine, as a tea to restore appetite, aiding digestion and even treating scurvy.

In a previous Grow and Tell, we met the county flower of Lincolnshire, the Common Dog Violet. The Cuckoo Flower was chosen and assigned to Cheshire County by Plantlife to be the Cheshire County Flower. However, in Cheshire County it is more commonly known as “Milkmaid”; probably associated to the County’s history of dairy farming.

Like many wildflowers of the British Isles, Cuckoo Flowers are strongly associated with folklore. Cuckoo Flowers were believed to be sacred to fairies and so it was believed to be unlucky to bring this flower inside. Perhaps something to consider when making bouquets from the garden. Despite being known as a Mayflower, for this same reason it was commonly left out of May Day garlands.

I’ll leave you with my first instalment of “Rude Botany”, a post I feel I need to create in its own rights. I’ve already mentioned that this plant is named Lady’s Smock because of the shape of its flowers, but it’s also been suggested that this name is linked to something naughtier.

Picture Springtime in the meadows, a few centuries past. Young lovers escape the judgemental stare of their parents to get to know each other a little better. Cuckoos Flowers are supposedly reminiscent of Lady’s smocks being strewn on the grass in those romantic moments.

This wonderful wildflower is known by many names, and each of those names gives us a glimpse into our history with it. Whether you look at this delicate, lilac beauty and think of the return of Cuckoos, dairy farming or Springtime frolics, the fact that it can act as a reminder for so much history makes it a really special plant in my books.


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