Lady’s smock is a delightful wayside plant, bearing clusters of four-petalled pale lilac flowers on slender stems. Its leaves are long and narrow, playing very much a supporting role in the pretty display. The leaves do have an interesting purpose, however, because they’re edible – they have a peppery taste and have long been used in salads.
You’re likely to see lady’s smock flowering in uncut meadows and grassy roadside verges, and it also likes the damp margins of ponds and rivers. In fact, the name ‘pratensis’ is the Latin for ‘meadow’.
Because it comes into flower around the time of the cuckoo’s arrival, lady’s smock is known as ‘cuckoo flower’. We have some blooming in our garden, but as yet we haven’t heard the cuckoo – in fact, I think cuckoos are becoming a less common sight (and sound) in Britain, which is a sad case, despite their unsociable habits. In some English counties, lady’s smock is also known as ‘milkmaid’.
Folklore and superstition surround the flowers of lady’s smock, which is just what I like! At one time, it was thought that picking it would generate a thunderstorm (if it wasn’t forbidden to do so, I’d try this, because I like a good thunderstorm!) Other people believed that picking it would attract adders, and the culprit would be bitten by one before the year was out. Those adders must bear grudges like no other.
One creature that isn’t scared of lady’s smock, however, is the orange tip butterfly. When an orange tip sees a lady’s smock in flower, it starts thinking of setting up a nursery. In fact, lady’s smock is the primary food plant of this very choosy but pretty little butterfly. We photographed some orange tips on lady’s smock a few years ago – that was a warm spring, ideal for butterflies, and the hedgerows were alive with them. This year, with the strong winds and cold temperatures, I fear for their fate.
In herbal medicine, a brew of lady’s smock leaves steeped in boiling water was thought to lessen the pain of arthritis and alleviate skin complaints. The plant was also believed to stimulate the liver and kidneys. The English botanist Nicholas Culpeper, in his ‘Complete Herbal’ of 1653, advised that lady’s smock was “…under the dominion of the Moon, and very little inferior to Water Cresses in all their operations; they are excellently good for the scurvy, they provoke urine, and break the stone, and excellently warm a cold and weak stomach, restoring lost appetite, and help digestion.”
Lady’s smock even features in a song in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost:
“When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue,
Do paint the meadows with delight…”
(Act V, Scene II)
Let’s hope lady’s smock and orange tips will be painting the meadows with delight this year, too!
All photographs copyright © Colin Woolf