May 1998                                       113
 
 

FLOWERING SCILLY

 LADY’S SMOCK  CUCKOO FLOWER

”And Ladies smocks all silver white, Do paint the meadows with delight.”
(Shakespeare - Loves Labour Lost)
 
Lady's Smock (11kb)This delightful early flower may give the impression of whiteness, as Shakespeare’s poem supposes, particularly when numerous heads carpet a meadow or grassy waterside, their natural habitat. None the less they are more commonly a ’blushing white’ - pale pink, lilac or ”that purple cast so peculiar to highly polished silver”. This silvery sheen is more marked on the undersides of the petals. The whole flower has the usual Maltese Cross type of petal of the cruciferae family. The four petals are fairly large so that the flower size can be in excess of one centimetre across. Each is set on its own stalk, bunching together at the top of a stiff upright stem up to approximately 25 centimetres high. The leaves are of two distinctive types. Basal leaves are somewhat broad and shaped much like an ivy leaf. Those on the flower stem give a feathery appearance due to the fact that they are divided up the midrib by narrow leaflets with relatively wide spacing.

The specific name of pratensis is Latin for meadow, which is where it grows. The common name of Cuckoo flower is indicative of the fact that they bloom at about the time when the cuckoo returns from wintering in warmer lands and can now be heard calling over the countryside. Confusion can arise due to the fact that the name Cuckoo flower is not confined to just the Lady’s smock, but is given to a number of other flowers blooming at this time.

As it is widespread over this country and many parts of Western Europe, it naturally has an abundant number of country names. Cuckoo flower is echoed in German by ’kuckucksblume’ and the English ’Milk maid’ by ’Milchblume’, ’Bread and milk’ is reflected in French by ’Pain-au-lait’. In Scotland the name Carson comes from Carse, a low, rich damp land. In Kent is found the name Smick-smocks which Grigson suggests may have come from the old English ’Lustmoce’. He also adds that ’smick’ was a colloquial word meaning ’amorous look and purpose’, adding that the smock, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was used coarsely, as modern idioms would ’a piece of skirt.’

As so often happens the church, wishing to render the name more decent, ascribed it to the Virgin Mary as my Lady’s Smock. It was held that John of Hildesheim in the second half of the fourteenth century wrote ”Seynt Elene” supposedly found in a cave in Bethlehem ”The clothes that oure Lord Ihesu Crist was wounde yn, and oure Lady’s Smock, thyngys oure Lady had forgete behynde her when she gette oute of that place to Egypt”. (Presumably there were no moths about?)

A more prosaic and believable suggestion was that in early summer, the women would spread out linen smocks to bleach and dry in the sun.

A flower so widespread inevitably attached to it considerable folklore. In Suffolk the superstitious called the flower Pick folly. Woe betide those who did pick it, for ill luck would follow, troubling the whole house. It was considered unlucky, in France, to pick them for May Day. Yet Woodward was to write that they were ”Favoured flowers in the days of Merry England” and quoted in witness, Izaak Walton, ”See here a boy, gathering lilies and Lady-smocks, all to make garlands.” In Germany another name was Donnerblume, thunder flower and in France ’Fleure de Tonnerre’, a flower not to be picked for fear of a storm or the house being hit by lightning. In Vienna it was considered a favoured flower of adders, threatening those that picked it would be snake-bitten before the year was out.

Use in ’the culinary and medical world is indicated by the name meadow cress. Culpeper in the mid seventeenth century, wrote ”This is very little inferior in all its operations to Watercress” and medicinally ”good for scurvy, effectually warms a cold and weak stomack, restores lost appetite and helps digestion.” This was sound sense since it was a source of vitamin C and, having the flavour of watercress, good for salads and sandwiches. Modern herbalists agree as to its use as a tonic.

Personally, I find all this folklore fascinating, but would like to state that it is incomprehensible that any flower can be considered unlucky. Even some medical suggestions are suspect. The only luck to be found in flowers is in the pleasure they can give, and the only certain medical property they bring is to induce calmness to a troubled mind by looking at their beauty – an excellent medicine with absolutely no side effects.

Julia Ottery.

 
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