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…..
Dear Readers, who would have thought that this delicate, pale-rose flower is a member of the Cabbage family, like the hairy bitter-cress that we looked at a few weeks ago? Yet, a close look at the four-petalled flowers in their typical cross (crucifer) shape is enough to give us a clue. I found these plants in several of the damper places in the cemetery, where they seem to have popped up like meerkats. Often, they are combined with speedwell and buttercups, and the colours make me catch my breath. I wish I could meet every one of you for a wildflower walk among the tombstones at the moment, there is a wonder around every corner.
Lady’s smock is a native plant and has many alternative names: cuckooflower (probably because it flowers at the same time as the return of the cuckoo), fairy flower and milkmaids. The petals of the buds are resemble a skirt, and so make it easier to see where the ‘smock’ part of the name might have come from. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey suggests that there might also be a more lascivious connotation to the word, with about the same meaning as ‘a bit of skirt’, and wonders if there might be a reference to what went on in the spring meadows.
However, Lady’s Smock also, confusingly, has an association with the Virgin Mary, and yet another alternative name is ‘Our Lady’s Smock’. This refers to the seamless white robe that Mary made for Jesus, and which was worn by him on Good Friday. It fascinates me how the bawdy references to a plant at one point in its history can be overlaid with biblical symbolism later, but how the two meanings often continue, side by side.The name ‘fairy flower’ probably came from the belief that the plant was sacred to the fairies, and so was unlucky if brought indoors. It was not included in May Day garlands for the same reason. It was also believed that picking the plant could create thunderstorms, and might attract adders. The real beneficiary of leaving the plant alone, though, is the orange-tip butterfly, who prefers lady’s smock and garlic mustard to any other plants. If you look closely at this time of year, you might be able to spot the caterpillars, though they are very well camouflaged. Like most members of the Brassica family, Lady’s Smock has been used as food – the leaves are said to have a strong peppery flavour , and in fact the Latin name ‘cardamine’ refers to Water cress, which has a similar taste. The Badger Bushcraft website uses Lady’s Smock to make a fiery condiment. On the ‘Eat the Weeds’ website, the leaves are combined with another recent favourite, three-cornered garlic, to make a side salad. Most of the brassicas seem to have some food value, much as their big domesticated cousins do. In fact, I suspect that these wild plants might have more concentrated goodness in them, having not been ‘messed about with’ for added sweetness or for a longer shelf life. Indeed, it has been reported that the leaves of lady’s smock have five times the vitamin C content of a lemon.
Medicinally, lady’s smock has a long history of use for convulsions and epilepsy, and also has an association with the treatment of gynecological problems. Culpeper recommends using the plant, in its fresh state, for gallstones, scurvy and upset stomachs. On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland relates how a powder was created by roasting the plant on a pewter dish. This powder was then kept in bottles which must have leather, rather than cork, stoppers, for reasons that are lost in antiquity.
As you might expect, a plant that flowers in the spring and which has been native to these islands for thousands of years has been honoured in a fair amount of poetry. Shakespeare features it in ‘Love’s Labours Lost:
‘When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady’s smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he: ‘Cuckoo,
Cuckoo, cuckoo’! Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear’.
This verse refers to the way that the cuckoo was thought to signal that a husband had been betrayed (cuckolded) by his wife, and it seems that this innocent little flower has a long tradition of being associated with infidelity: in ‘The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry’, edited by Lucy Hooper, including the plant in a bouquet is said to be an indication of ‘paternal error’. What with all this business about smocks and meadows it all feels decidedly like one of those paintings of peasants being unruly by Pieter Brueghel.
This is my third year of writing ‘The Wednesday Weed’ every week, and it has now reached the point where, as I walk through the cemetery, I am seeing old floral friends come into flower and wane. The lesser celandine is almost finished now, the bluebells have grey husks where their flowers once were, but the red campion is in full flower, and the hogweed is waiting for its moment just as the cow parsley is at its greatest glory. The rhythm of the seasons is both subtle and obvious, but walking the shady lanes and verdant grasslands here has brought it home to me that I need to take that photograph, smell that blossom, listen to that chiff-chaff, right now, because in a few weeks it will be gone. Carpe diem indeed.
Photo One – By No machine-readable author provided. Svdmolen assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two – By H. Krisp (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer