Were you to visit The Priory at this time of year, and were I to gently push your nose under bushes and hedges and into shady, damp corners you would certainly notice Arum maculatum.
You might not know it by its Latin name but perhaps you call it Lords and Ladies. Or Cuckoo flower – though confusingly Cardamine pratensis shares this common name as its flowering is said to coincide with the spring arrival of cuckoos in the UK. This seems true enough in my experience.
Perhaps you use neither of those names and call it Jack in the Pulpit or Parson in the Pulpit. Maybe Wake Robin, Babe-in-the-Cradle, Robin and Joan, Greasy Dragon or Silly Lovers. No?
How about Friar’s Cowl or Bobbins? Or Adam and Eve, Lily Grass, Knights and Ladies? Or Calves Foot, Devils and Angels, Red-hot-poker, Snake’s Meat, Frog’s Meat, Lady’s Smock, Lamb’s Lakens or Cows and Bulls? Have you decided yet, Sweethearts? (That’s another name – I wasn’t being over-familiar). Parson and Clerk, Adder’s Tongue, Ramp and Kings and Queens are perfectly acceptable and if you’re from Somerset you might know it as Sucky Calves. I also found Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me – though I find it hard to imagine anyone using that many syllables to describe what’s under the privet. Hobble-gobbles, Moll of the woods, Jack in the box and Jack in the green; English passionflower, Lady’s keys, Long purples, Nightingale, Soldiers and sailors and Flycatcher – the list goes on.
The shape of the green hood gives us Tender Ear, Narrow Ear and Goat’s Ear. And that of the spadix: Bloody Man’s Finger, Dead Man’s Fingers and Cobbler’s Thumb.
Some names such as Starchwort and Starch-root refer to the historic use of its cooked and ground tubers as starch for laundry and even food (but please don’t try this at home unless you know exactly what you are doing – A. maculatum is toxic). The roots can also be used as a thickening agent hence the name Arrowroot – though this is not the familiar, readily available ‘arrowroot’ which is usually derived from Maranta arundinacea.
You might have guessed that many of the names are ribald and even lewd, as the shape of the flower might be considered suggestive of male and female genitalia. Don’t really see it myself. I’ve always known it as Cuckoo-pint – but I have been mispronouncing it; pint rhymes with ‘mint.’ Pint is derived from pintle which is an Old English word for penis. And cuccopintle means cuckoo penis which the plant is said to resemble. (I wasn’t able to verify this from my sighting of a cuckoo in flight). Willy Lily, Priest’s Pilly (Westmorland), Parson’s Billycock and Naked Boys are hardly euphemistic but if you really wish to cut to the chase, move to Wiltshire where it is known simply as Dog’s cock. No beating about the bush in Wiltshire, no poetry.
The most common name, Lords and Ladies, might be Victorian; used to gloss over some of the more er … colourful rustic epithets. Though it has been suggested* that with a little apostrophe-use, it is just as vulgar as some of these other names, viz Lord’s and Lady’s – bringing us right back to the earthy vernacular.
So pick a name. You might plump for Wild Arum though that seems a little tame. And me? I think I’ll ditch Cuckoo-pint in favour of the perfectly marvellous Sucky Calves.
There may be as many as a hundred common names for A. maculatum and though I found many more than I’ve listed here, they were variations on some of the above, eg Dog’s bobbin, Man in the pulpit, Soldiers, Pokers, Naked ladies etc. I figured fifty-five – now sixty – different names were more than enough).
* Richard Mabey’s quite brilliant ‘Flora Britannica’ was invaluable in writing this post. If you don’t already own a copy rush out and buy one. Right this minute, Sweethearts.