Sadly, nowadays it’s getting rarer and rarer to hear a cuckoo in the spring, but the memory of this once-common herald of the spring lingers in the common names of some of the wildflowers which bloom at this time of year.
Growing up in mid-Devon, this was known as Lady’s Smock, but a more common name for Cardamine pratensis is ‘Cuckoo Flower’. This is pretty common in the hedge banks around here, and likes damp, to the point of boggy soils. Lady’s Smock sounds very proper, but apprently ‘smock’ used to have a slightly smuttier connotation, on a par with a modern ‘bit of skirt’.
This bawdier tone continues in another Spring flower, also sometimes known as Cuckoo Flower (hence the need for the scientific, ‘Latin’ names). Arum maculatum is also known as Cuckoo Pint (to rhyme with ‘mint’), short for pintle, which is an old-fashioned slang for penis. A less high-brow version is ‘Willy Lily’! A look at the flower spike makes it quite clear why. A more respectable name was ‘Parson in the pulpit’. In late summer/Autumn, this sports bright red berries up its length, when it becomes easily recognisable as what we used to call Lords and Ladies.
It’s such a treat after a long, cold, grey winter withstood days when it seems there is no colour left at all to suddenly be surrounded by lanes absolutely full of flowers, and their rich history that continues in the common names shows that they were equally significant through the ages.
All we need now is a cuckoo…..