As many of my friends will testify it's a mistake to ask me question if you're in a hurry; the answers can sometimes be longer than you were expecting. But, as two readers have asked me about a plant shown on this blog recently, I feel justified in giving you the details - whether you want them or not!
It's a common enough plant in England and tends to grow in damp places. The little wood alongside the River Mel in my home village is ideal.
I called this plant Cuckoo Pint but Lords-And-Ladies is an equally common name for the flower. It has lots of other names too: Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Devils-And-Angels, Adam-And-Eve, Arrowhead, Snakesmeat, Cows-And-Bulls, Red Hot Poker, Starchwort, Fairy Lamps, Willy Lily (!), Naked Boys, Kitty-Come-Down-The-Lane-Jump-Up-And-Kiss-Me and indeed Shiners.
Why Cuckoo Pint? First of all you need to know that "pint" in this case rhymes with "mint" and is probably an abbreviation of "pintle" which was an old word for "penis". The erect structure in the centre of the flower might well be the inspiration for that part of the name. Cuckoos were birds with a bad reputation from their habit of fooling other birds into bringing up their offspring. The word "cuckold" also derives from cuckoo.
Many of the other names with male and female components refer to its resemblance to male and female genitalia. The derivation of some of the other names will become clear later.
This superabundance of folk names caused much confusion and was one of the reasons why all plants were given Latin names. In this case Arum Maculatum. "Maculatum" means maculate, one of those strange English words which only usually exists in its negative form - immaculate, meaning unblemished. Far from being immaculate the leaves of Cuckoo pint are often, but not always, spotted...
...with black spots!
You'd expect there to be a folk tale about the spots and indeed there is: the plant has drops of Christ's blood on it, so they say. It is occasionally depicted in church carvings or painting and was apparently used as a funeral flower by Methodists.
The Real Sexy Bit
This morning I went out to try to find some more of these plants to photograph. I didn't find any in prime condition as they tend to wilt quickly (no sexual references here, please!) but I did come across one that had been trampled so I was able to break it open to show you the male and female parts of the flower which are otherwise hidden. I did this very carefully as the plant is poisonous and the sap is an irritant. The male flowers are the small, dark-red spheres while the female ones are the larger, yellowish ones beneath. Pollination is aided by small flies which become entrapped in the lower part of the plant having been attracted there by its urine-like smell. Oddly this is one of the few plants which produces heat as well as scent.
Later in the year the plant produces some bright red fruits which might be very tempting for children to taste. This stage of the plant's growth gives rise to the name Bloody Man's Finger.
There are very few reported cases of death through poisoning, probably because they are so disgusting that no one would persevere to eat enough to do any serious harm. Despite this rodents and insects often give it a nibble. I imagine that's why it's sometimes called "snakemeat", though I doubt it's often a snake that does the nibbling.
The roots of the plant contain high amounts of starch and they were once ground up to make a powder that was used to stiffen ruffs and collars, hence the name starchwort. The roots are every bit as nasty as the rest of the plant and washerwomen suffered from blistered hands as a result of using it. Amazingly there are records of it being used for culinary purposes but no one now seems to know how to make it palatable. Equally bizzarely the ground-up roots were used for cosmetic purposes by the fashionable ladies of eighteenth-century Paris to whiten their skin. All of these suggestions come with serious health and safety warnings - Do Not Try This At Home!
The River Little Ouse, pictured above on a suitably misty and mysterious morning, is the setting for an ancient tale about this humble flower.
The plant was originally brought over from France by nuns who came from Normandy to settle in Thetford. When the monks from Ely stole the body of St Withburga from East Dereham they moored their boats and rested at Brandon. The Thetford nuns came down to the river and covered the saint's body with the flowers. During the remainder of the journey some of the flowers fell into the river and were washed to the bank where they put out roots and grew. Within an hour the river was lined with flowers all the way to Ely. What is more the flowers glowed in the dark.
All rubbish of course, except that, as the old fenmen knew well, the pollen of the flowers does glow faintly at dusk, which accounts for the names Fairy Lamps and Shiners.
In writing the above several books were consulted, the most useful of these being Richard Mabey's "Flora Britannica".
I also checked out a few websites including http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/ http://www.forestforaging.com/ http://www.plantlife.org.uk/ and of course Wikipedia