Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Cuckoo-flower, lady’s smock, milkmaids …

Cuckoo-flower, Cardamine pratensis, a perennial herb with attractive pale pink flowers, is widespread and common on damp soils throughout Britain and Ireland, often persisting, but not flowering, in frequently mown lawns and road verges.  In common with other attractive common flowers, cuckoo-flower has acquired many local names, with some 80 being listed on the database associated with this website.

Milkmaids seems to be the most widespread of these names, being still known in Hampshire, Kent, Norfolk, Sussex, Yorkshire and north Wales.  Variants include milk-girl, recorded from Devon by James Britten & Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant-names (1886), and milking maids in Somerset, listed by A.S. Macmillan in his Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc. (1922).

Cuckoo-flower, the plant’s standard English name refers to its time of flowering coinciding with the arrival of the cuckoo.  Similar names include cuckoo-bread recorded from Devon by Britten & Holland, and Somerset by Macmillan, cuckoo pint, a name more usually given to lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum), recorded from Leicestershire by Britten and Holland, and from Sussex and Wiltshire by Geoffrey Grigson in his Englishman’s Flora (1987).  Other names which relate to the plant’s flowering season are the widespread mayflower, known in Cheshire, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Dumfriesshire and Northern Ireland.  Possibly the name adder’s meat, recorded on Gower, refers to cuckoo-flowers blooming when reptiles begin to emerge, but according to one unlocalised report the picking of the flowers ‘was alleged to be unlucky, as if you picked them you would be bitten by an adder’.

Other names such as the widespread lady’s smock, lady’s glove in Northamptonshire, and lady’s lock in Nottinghamshire, are, according to some writers, contractions of older names relating to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, but it is equally probable that these ‘lady’ names simply refer to the flowers’ delicate appearance.

Image:  Grasmere, Cumbria, May 2015.

Edited 7 May 2023.