Cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis

I remember Cuckoo flower from my childhood although I called it Milkmaids, presumably my parents taught me that name. It grew in a damp meadow near to where we lived on Beehive Lane in Galleywood, Essex, there was also a huge pond which was quite shallow and would dry up in the summer.  At some stage before we moved from this little Essex village to an area of East London which was officially within the Forest Gate postal area but was really West Ham, the pond was filled in and a house was built on the plot.

Not only was this the end of the Cuckooflowers but also the end of the newts which used the pond to breed in every Spring.  Before they sold the plot prior to building a house they filled the pond with a clay soil. That year, there were hundreds of newts in what remained of the pond, mostly Smooth Newts but also quite a lot of Great Crested newts. A friend and I spent several days ‘rescuing’ these newts and we then ‘looked after’ them in large sweet jars, provided by my Uncle who at the time worked for a company called Palmer and Harvey. They were wholesalers supplying shops with sweets and tobacco. I think they recently went bankrupt.

I do not know what the people who built the house called it, but quite often when a new development pops up in the countryside, then what was previously living there gets used as the name. So maybe it was Newt pool House,  or Cuckoo Meadow cottage. It sounds sweet and nice but it is almost like waving two fingers at the  poor unfortunate  former inhabitants. No doubt Beehive lane was named because at some stage there was a beekeeper living in the vicinity. And Forest Gate, was so named as it was the entrance to Epping Forrest which at the time was almost 10 miles from London.

Just out of interest I had a look on google earth and managed to find the house which was built where the newts once lived and it has got a name which is ‘Oak Nursery’ so no passing nod to former residents.

Of course all this was back in the late 1950’s,  probably 1958 and back then newts were two a penny and there was no Ken Livingstone’s to protect them. I do not suppose my sweet  jar efforts  did them much good either. It did however teach me a little about the matting habits of newts, which was quite fascinating.

Well that was a rather long introduction to Cuckooflower or as it is also called Ladies Smock. You can understand the first name as it comes into flower at just about the same time as the first Cuckoos  start to call. As to the second name there are various suggestions in the literature but all a bit nebulous. The pink colour, could be the same as a ladies smock…. not that convincing. Also evidently smock was a slang word for a woman who might be a bit free with her favours and could be found frolicking in the meadows in Spring….  However I would suggest if embarking on a frolic then a  damp water meadow might not be ones first choice. Goodness knows where Milkmaids originated.

Cuckooflower is the food plant of the Orange tip butterfly, aptly named because this member of the ‘white’ butterfly family (Pieridae) has orange tips to its wings, if it is a male. The female however does not and from above looks quite similar to the Small white and the Green veined white. The defining characteristic of this species is the underside of the wings which are mottled green and white and make a perfect camouflage against the flower heads of Cow Parsley on which it often feeds.

These are clever little butterflies because they only lay one  egg on each Cuckooflower food plant. It was thought  they had a quick check round to make sure there are no other eggs already attached to the plant and only then would  they lay just one egg.  Recently studies have discovered that to prevent other females from laying eggs on the same flower head, females  will deposit a pheromone during egg laying.  This pheromone will deter other females from also laying an egg on that flower head.  However flower heads with more than one egg can still be found because the pheromone is water-soluble and relatively short-lived.  Generally though you only find one bright orange egg per plant and this ensures that when the caterpillar hatches out there will be sufficient food for it to grow to full size and then turn into a chrysalis.  This is quite sensible because Cuckooflowers do not grow as a dense clumps like Stinging nettles, so if there were several caterpillars on one plant they would at some stage run out of leaves and have to decamp and find a fresh plant, and with the plants growing relatively dotted about it could prove difficult.

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I have included this plant in with the woodland wildflowers because it will sometimes grow in wet woodlands where it is no too shady, there was quite a lot of it growing in Honeypot wood in Norfolk, this was a coppice with Standard woodland. Some of the photos of the flowers in this article were taken just outside the village of St Briavels in Gloucestershire, others were taken close to Ninewells wood in Monmouthshire.

I have had a communication which suggests a reason for the name Milkmaids…..‘Oh, and the milkmaid reference may be to do with the flowers appearing at the same time as cows were put out into the meadows after a winter indoors, and the flush of green growth caused an increase in milk production.’

Recently I was wandering along the River Wye in Gloucestershire and examined many plants to see if I could find the eggs of the Orange Tip butterfly. I was not successful but I did spot several butterflies some were on the Cuckoo flowers and others were on the Garlic mustard which is also a food plant for the caterpillar. I did however see lots of other little insects and spiders. I think both spiders are what are known as crab spiders. The all white one is probably Misumena vatia ….. but the one with the dark legs and spotted back I have not been able to identify…

Now I have finally managed to find a plant with an Orange tip butterfly egg on it.


Also I have found some galls which I have never seen before. I have looked them up on the internet and can find no reference to them so help would be appreciated. This is how they appear on the flower.

I then took one home and carefully cut it open to reveal some little grubs inside.

Adam Lucas  has said ‘It is a gall midge, Dasineura cardaminis’.

4 thoughts on “Cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis

  1. Fascinating stuff. I grew up in a house (in suburbia) called Syringa because there was a Syringa bush in the front garden – don’t know whether my mother planted it and named the house, or if it was already there. But I don’t remember it having lilac-type flowers – just that it produced a few white flowers for a short period in spring.

    When part of the garden was taken to make a road to a new housing development on the small-holding behind the house, this road was called Primrose Close. There were no primroses that I remember, except that my mother’s middle name was Primrose, she having been born on Primrose Day. Did she have something to do with the road name? Or was it coincidence? I had long left the area by then, so don’t know if there was a connection.


  2. Oh, and the milkmaid reference may be to do with the flowers appearing at the same time as cows were put out into the meadows after a winter indoors, and the flush of green growth caused an increase in milk production.


    1. OK that sounds logical I will incorporate that into the info. Thanks.


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