Saturday, 18 April 2009

Lady's Smock

Now is the time of year when one of my favourite wild flowers appears, the Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), which has other vernacular names such as ‘Lady’s Smock’ and ‘Milk Maids’.

‘Cuckooflower’ is now the ‘official’ vernacular name but I’ve always called it ‘Lady’s Smock’ – in accordance with older books. Lots of spring flowers have, or have had, the ‘Cuckoo’ name applied to them, so it can get a bit confusing.

The plant itself is yet another member of the Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae) and, like its relatives, is a ‘crucifer’ i.e. it has four petals arranged in the form of a cross (how else could you arrange four identical petals?). It is quite common and is a feature of damp grassland almost everywhere: Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green are good places to look for it.

Geoffrey Grigson (1) tells us that the Lady’s Smock’ name was once considered to be a bit indelicate. He tells us that, “'Smock' was used coarsely, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as we use ‘skirt’, or ‘piece of skirt’ etc.”
I’m a bit offended by that “we”! The Friends of Chorlton Meadows would never use such sexist language, Mr Grigson! But you get the picture that this plant may well have been associated with certain activities that probably took place in meadows on warm, dewy April mornings. Although “Dabbling in the dew makes the milk maids fair”, as an English traditional song expresses it, the alleged cosmetic properties of morning dew were probably not the primary aim of such activities.
Anyway, certain puritans subsequently attempted to ‘Christianise’ the name by linking it, via obscure medieval manuscripts, to the Virgin Mary (briefly, St. Helena was supposed to have found the smock of the Virgin Mary in the cave in Bethlehem).

Shakespeare mentions this plant in a verse from ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (2):

“When daisies pied and violets blue,
And lady-smocks all silver-white,
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight”

Shakespeare scholars have since agonised over that “silver-white” description. C. pratensis flowers are not white but a pale lilac colour. But they do look white from a distance and, more importantly, ‘pale lilac’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘delight’. It’s easy this Shakespeare scholarship, isn’t it!?

Dave Bishop, April 2009


1. ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ by Geoffrey Grigson, Paladin, 1975 (first pub. 1958)

2. ‘Shakespeare’s Flowers’ by Jessica Kerr, Kestrel Books, 1975

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