Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Cuckoo-pint. Lords and Ladies. Willy Lily. Cows and Bulls. Was there ever a plant that had so many names? And all of them are associated with sex – even the innocent ‘pint’ in ‘Cuckoo-pint’ is short for pintle (slang for ‘penis’). In the spring and early summer, the inflorescence looks like a combination of pale green vulva and purple phallus, and, as we will see, nothing about this plant is straightforward.
The strange green inflorescence is not actually a flower – it’s called a spathe, and the true flowers are hidden deep inside the plant. Have a look at Figure 3, in the drawing above. You can see that at the base of the spathe there is a ring of tiny blossoms. These are the male flowers, and they produce the smell of freshly-deposited animal droppings. Plus, the spathe generates its own heat – it can be fifteen degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding air. This attracts an insect called the Owl Midge, which normally feeds on dung.
The Owl Midge lands on the flower, and tries to find out where the droppings are. Once it has entered the ring of male flowers, it finds itself trapped overnight, and in the process of trying to escape becomes covered in pollen. When morning comes, the flies are able to escape and travel on to another Cuckoo-pint, where the same thing happens all over again.
The female flowers are below the male flowers, and it is these that turn into the scarlet-orange berries that I saw in Coldfall Wood last week. As I hadn’t previously noticed the flowers, they were a startling surprise:
The berries are poisonous, resulting in tingling and swelling of the tongue and mouth. As the plant is very common, they account for a large proportion of the people who turn up in Accident and Emergency following a little spontaneous foraging (23 people between 1996 and 1999, according to the wonderful Poison Garden website – only the nightshade family was responsible for more visits). However, rodents don’t seem to be affected by the toxin, and, as they cache any berries that they can’t eat at the time, are largely responsible for the spread of the plant from one glade to another.
To add to the otherworldliness of this extraordinary plant, its pollen glows faintly after dark – they have been called Fairy Lamps and Shiners by the people of the Fens for generations.
One might think that a toxic plant would have few practical uses, but the root of Cuckoo-pint has been used as a replacement for arrowroot, although the sauces thickened with it tended to be bitter. The root was also used in Elizabethan times as a starch for ruffs, but was said to have caused severe blistering of the launderer’s hands. It seems to me that this is a plant which would really prefer to be left alone to get on with its life without interference, and has no compunction about saying so.