An Arum By Any Other Name

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 manulatum.

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You might not know it by its Latin name (I didn’t prior to this post) but if you call it anything it is probably 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.

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Perhaps you use neither of those names and call it Jack in the Pulpit or, if you prefer, Parson in the Pulpit.  Maybe Wake Robin, Babe-in-the-Cradle, Robin and Joan, Greasy Dragon or Silly Lovers.  No?

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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.

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The brown spadix and hooded spathe

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).  They 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.  I’ve always known it as  Cuckoo-pint – though 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.

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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 just 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. manulatum and I found many more than I’ve listed here; but they were variations on some of the above, eg Dog’s bobbin, Man in the pulpit, Soldiers, Pokers, Naked ladies etc.  And I figured fifty-five – now sixty – was more than enough).

* Richard Mabey’s quite brilliant ‘Flora Britannica’ (which was invaluable in writing this post).  If you don’t already own a copy rush out and buy one.  Right this minute.

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31 thoughts on “An Arum By Any Other Name

  1. I enjoyed reading your comments about this plant David! Speaking of genitalia, funny enough I was thinking the other week how some flowers look like genitalia which makes you also think about the consistency of the design of nature across different species (fascinating and humorous at the same time!).

    I love Arums and can’t get enough of them. They may not be exotic plants in essence but they do look the part and find them indispensable in the garden for being so reliable and leafy at this time of the year.

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    • I don’t grow any arums Boys, not even italicum – though I mean too. Nat had an amazing one in his last post that made me very jealous, so they are something I’d like to grow more of. And certainly orchid flowers have long been considered saucy in their resemblance to certain parts of the human body! D

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  2. It is rife in our hedgerows, and pops up in our garden where it has been left to roam for a few years before we came. Quite a pain to dig out, but I’m trying to stop it springing up in the centre of some of my preferred border plants. I’ve always called it lords and ladies or cuckoo pint, but now that I’ve read your eye watering explanation (and pronunciation guide) for the latter, I think I’ll be sticking firmly to lords and ladies going forward!

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  3. Hi David, I’ve always known it as Lords and Ladies. Had no idea there were so many common names for it, Just shows us the favour old Mr Linnaeus did for all of us gardeners coming up with the 2 name system in Latin. I quite like Willy Lily and may well have to refer to it as that from now on. I’d love to meet the person who first decided it looked like a cuckoo’s penis and hence cuckoo’s pint. They must have got closer to a cuckoo than I’ve managed.

    Richard Mabey’s book is already on my wish list. I find our wild plants and their history fascinating. A great post which made me chuckle. WW

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    • I do wonder though WW how many people actually used some of these names. Probably in some cases just families or small communities. And like you say cuckoo pint is such an esoteric name – who on earth decided on it? D.

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  4. If you’d like us to look at the…etc. under the bushes and hedges in damp shady corners, Dave, all you have to do is ask, you know. “Do have a look at the devils and angels hiding in the shrubbery,” for example, would make the point without any shoving. On the other hand, we might worry about you. Tough call. Fun post!

    P.S. I wonder what else the people of Wiltshire get up to.

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    • Well Stacy, I find if I just ask visitors to inspect my shady damp corners, I don’t get many takers. I find they need a little gentle persuasion. Though I never shove – no. Just a gentle nudge is generally sufficient. D

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  5. I had no idea that there were so many names for this plant, nor that Wake Robin, which I’m sure I have heard of, but not identified, was one of them. I did know about the origin of cuckoo pint and have had my own suspicions about the properness or otherwise of Lords and Ladies. I now have a lot more names to call it than just arum. Very interesting.

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    • This post has actually been written awhile, Christina. But it’s been so very cold and wet that the arums are late and I’ve been waiting for the flowers to unfurl. Most gardening here in S England is on hold – the ground at the Priory is like a sopping sponge! D

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  6. i see what you mean, Dave. Such a vulgar and suggestible plant couldn’t just be called ‘Arum,’ could it? Someone, somewhere in one of the many byways of Britain must surely have taken secret delight in allocating it a name irreverent, jocular and sluttish. I’d say something like ‘Lady of the Night,’ but then, to me, that’s an honour, not a sin.

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  7. Very interesting post – I love the old names, especially the rude ones! 😛 It’s a positive weed at the towers but I do like it when it’s not somewhere it shouldn’t be. I like the way the tubers look like little brains.

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  8. Hell, I think I’m going with Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me. I have a lot of arum in my garden (found there when I bought the house and mindless self seeding and spreading all around) though I guess mine is arum italicum (at least because it grows in Italy). I’m looking forward to having some friends over to show them the garden and say ‘Oh that’s a clump of Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me, and there are some new plants of Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me, this is a Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me’s flower. Do you want some Kitty-come-down-the-lane-jump-up-and-kiss-me to bring home with you?’

    Anyway I’m not sure I’d like to come to the Priory and being pushed (ok, gently) under the bushes to smell your dog’s cock! You should find other ways to promote your garden…

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  9. Oh I may visit the posh garden centre up the road and see if they sell this plant. I shall rattle off the list of names and blind them with my intellect (who knows they may fall for it). Great post! 🙂

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