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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

Cuckoo flower-Cardamine pratensis.

The cuckoo flower also known as Lady's smock, and Milk maids belongs to the Order Brassicales placed in the Family Brassciaceae {cabbage family} and placed in the genus Cardamine.

This beautiful plant is an integral part of the English spring, their frothy blooms enhancing damp meadows and along rivers and streams.  

Description of the cuckoo flower

The plant attains the height of 8-12 inches {up to 30 cm}, some times may be taller depending on the growing conditions. . The basal leaves have rounded lobes, similar in form to those of the water cress and form a loose rosette. These basal leaves often die back during the flowering period. A different shaped leaf adorns the stems. these have much narrower leaflets {see photo Below}.

The flowers have four broadly oval petals, ranging in colour from white,lilac through to pink. They are 1.2 to1.8 cm wide. The anthers are yellow.They are borne in clusters at the tips of the stems. They appear from April until June.

The seeds are elongated seed pods which are the larval food plant of the Orange tip and green veined white butterflies. They are erect and slender up to 4cm long.

 

The leaf on the left is the stem leaf. The leaf on the right is a basal leaf which has much broader rounded lobes. Photograph by Dal.

The delicate veins on the petals of the cuckoo flower Photograph by Dal.

                                    What's in a name ?

                                   

                             

The name cuckoo flower derives from the fact that in places these plants are in bloom when the cuckoo first calls its familiar notes. Many other species of flora are also referred to by the name cuckoo flower, which seems to have been a popular name for spring and early summer flowering species.

One of its alternative names Lady's smock is thought to be a corruption of "Our Lady's smock" being one of the many species dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Another country title for the plant is milkmaids and again alludes to spring and meadows. In the north of the country and over the border in Scotland they were commonly referred to as spinks, this is confirmed by the words of Ferguson---

                                  " Or, can our flowers at ten hour's bell

                                   The gowan {buttercup} or the spink excell"

The genus name of Cardamine  derives from the Greek Kardia meaning heart + damas {to fortify} on account of its supposed tonic and invigorating powers.

                                 "At first but single,

                                 And then in flocks

                                 In dell and dingle,

                                The Lady's smocks"

                                                       Alfred Austin {1835-1913}

Another poem by Tennyson called the May Queen----

                           " The honeysuckle round the porch has wov'n its wavy bowers,

                             And by the meadow -trenches blow the sweet cuckoo flowers,

                            And the wild marsh marigold shines like fire on swamps and hollows gray" 

The green veined white butterfly   who's larvae feed on the cuckoo flower seed pods. photograph courtesy of Kafuffle CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

Cuckoo flower medicinal Historical facts.

Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist wrote in his Herbal-- " They are very little inferior to water cresses in all their operations; they are good for scurvy; they provoke urine and break the stone , and warm a weak cold stomach, restoring the appetite and promote digestion."

In the Family Herbal printed in 1820 it states, that the cuckoo flower is --" A very beautiful wild plant,frequent in our meadows in spring, and a great ornament to them. It grows a foot high.

The juice of the fresh leaves is to be used, it is an excellent diuretic, and is good in the gravel and all suppressions  of urine. It also opens obstructions, and is good in jaundice and green sickness and a course of it against scurvy" 

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Modern day medicinal and culinary uses.

The fresh juice can be extracted from the fresh plant by being placed in a cloth or muslin; some effort is required to squeeze until the juice drips. The fresh juice  can be taken by the tablespoon dose,3-5 times daily.

The chopped leaves can be infused with hot water for 10-15 minutes, then strain off the liquid.Soak a dressing in the infusion and apply to areas tormented by rheumatic pains. 

A powder can be produced by crushing the dried leaves by means of a pestle and mortar, until it is of a fine powdery texture. This may then be mixed with water in a tablespoon dose. . This is taken daily as a tonic.

The plant contains , among its many constituents, high levels of vitamin C, and mustard oil compounds. The plant is considered to be strengthening and invigorating. The mustard compounds present prompts the liver and kidneys to increase activity. As an infusion the resulting tea is soothing and antispasmodic  and is employed to alleviate the symptoms of  stubborn coughs and abdominal cramps.

Harvest the plant at the start of the flowering season for best results. The parts that are used are the leaves, shoots and all above ground parts. These may hung in the shade to dry.

Foragers may collect the flowers and particularly the foliage to add to salads. The somewhat mustardy or peppery taste counteracts the coldness of salads. i have heard the taste as being like horse radish, or water cress. I suppose this is down to individual interpretation, but they are a source of Vitamin C and add interest to boring salads, this is especially so when the flowers are also sprinkled among it.

Any one who is thinking of using herbs for culinary or medicinal preparations for the first time should click on to the Wild Herb Advise banner on the right hand side of this page. 

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