Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Starch from lords-and-ladies

The names arrowroot, starch-moor, starch-root and starchwort, all recorded from Portland, Dorset, for lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum), recall one of the plant’s former uses.
In the sixteenth century starch prepared from lords-and-ladies tubers was used to stiffen the elaborate ruffs worn by the fashionable well-to-do. In the 1560s or thereabouts, ‘washing, drying, hanging out and ironing were performed in the presence of nobles as today are music and arts’. Writing in 1597, John Gerard observed: ‘The most pure and white starch is made of the rootes of Cuckowpint [i.e. lords-and-ladies], but most hurtfull to the hands of the laudresse that have the handling of it, for it choppeth, blistereth, and maketh hands rough and withall smarting’. Lords-and-ladies starch was thought to be the best available, while that made from bluebells (Hyacinthoides nonscripta) was considered second best. However the demand was so great that wheat (Triticum aestivum) was also used as a source, even though there was usually a scarcity of it.
As ruffs became unfashionable demand for starch diminished, and the use of lords-and-ladies was largely forgotten. However in 1796 the Royal Society being concerned about the amount of wheat used to prepare starch offered a ‘gold medal or thirty guineas’ to the discoverer of a method of a way of preparing starch from material not used for human food. The thirty guineas was awarded to Mrs Jane Gibbs, of Portland, who prepared starch from lords-and-ladies. This gave rise to a minor local industry, which persisted until the 1850s.
The starch was also made into an arrowroot which was said to be very good for invalids. This use continued until the 1870s and in 1940 it was said that pestles and mortars used for the preparation of arrowroot could still be seen on Portland, but by 1960 these seem to have all disappeared.
Rice (Oryza sativa) has now replaced lords-and-ladies as the source of best quality starch.

Adapted from C.T. Prime, Lords and Ladies, London, 1960: 35-53.