Flower of the day: cuckoo flower

OK, so we’re in lockdown right now but the sun is shining and the silver lining to the current situation is that’s co-incided exactly with when nature hits the accelerator pedal – forget June busting out all over, from now to mid May is when nature goes from dormant to wide awake. So for the next few weeks, I thought I’d focus this blog on some of the wild flowers, birds and animals that you may see when you go out for your ‘once- a-day-for-exercise’ walks, or even see in your back garden, to help answer those ‘I wonder what that is?’ questions.

Have you heard a cuckoo yet? Nope, me neither but then the numbers of this quintessential spring bird have crashed in recent years. However, there are plenty of cuckoo flowers around – traditionally called this because they flower in April when the cuckoo arrives back from Africa. It’s as if Nature is putting out the bunting to celebrate the return of this long-distance traveller.

For me, the cuckoo flower is the most delicate and elegant of all the spring flowers even though, believe it or not, it’s one of the cabbage family – a type of plant more usually associated with horrible, smelly school dinners! (the flower has four petals which all members of the cabbage family do). It has another common name – lady’s smock. Now, you may think that’s a pretty name for a pretty flower but in past centuries the nick-name ‘smock’ was not flattering when applied to a woman. Far from it. It’s thought that this name was more alluding to couples canoodling amongst the flowers in meadows.

Fortunately, a long list of other names has built up around the UK over the centuries: milkmaids, fairy flower, coco plant, bread and milk, cuckoo bread, spinks and spring bread! (Oh, and Cruciferae pratensis of course, the proper latin name)

Cuckoo flower likes to keep its roots damp so you’ll find it growing in places like wet grassland, in ditches, on river banks and alongside roads. Verges may seem a strange place to find them but rainfall is often diverted from the road surface into the verge creating the perfect squelchy conditions. Just recently, I’ve seen clumps of it alongside the canal walking from Stroud to Dudbridge, but also in shady spots near Rodborough Common. 

However, it’s real beauty shines through when it grows in the thousands in unimproved damp fields and along streams. Not a common sight anymore but it’s fantastic when you do see it.

The young leaves have a peppery taste and, in past times, were used like cress in sandwiches and salads (I have to confess that I haven’t sampled them!). But not everywhere as, in some areas, people believed that picking this flower brought bad luck because it was sacred to the fairies who, no doubt, would not be chuffed about their favourite flower being taken away. So it wasn’t included in May garlands for that reason.  

Cuckoo flower is the favourite food of caterpillars of the orange-tip butterfly, which you’ll see zipping around right now as the female lays her eggs. Caterpillars eat the leaves, not the flower, so they keep on munching long after the flowers have finished.

In times past, cuckoo flower was a common sight wherever the ground was wet – wildlife author Richard Maybe recounts the memories of a lady who picked armfuls of it whilst a girl living near King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in the 1970s. Now, sad to say, it’s uncommon – draining wetlands and damp fields is the main reason for its scarcity these days. So if you come across it, stop a while and appreciate its delicate beauty.

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