Eyeing up a lady’s smock on the riverbank


After a balmy couple of weeks it was back to Baltic conditions at the weekend, with daytime temperatures falling back to single figures.

Nonetheless, spring marches forward, with ever more migrant birds arriving and starting to sing.

On a chilly but pleasant walk along the banks of the Tweed near Roxburgh Castle on Sunday, several orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies were on the wing, and many warblers were in full song, particularly blackcap and willow warbler.

On my own patch of riverside walk on the Ettrick, the spring flowers were really getting going, particularly forget-me-not, wood anemone, red campion, toothwort and one of my favourites – the cuckoo flower.

Named as its main flowering period coincides with the arrival of the cuckoo, this attractive member of the cabbage family is always synonymous with spring.

An alternative common name for the cuckoo flower is lady’s smock, and it was this long association with maids and their smocks which gave the flower a romantic association.

When Christianity came to these islands, that feminine association was transferred to the Virgin Mary, which led to a host of other names for the flower, such as my lady’s smock, lady’s glove and dozens more.

In Europe, a lot of superstition used to surround this flower. It was thought that if anyone picked it, a thunderstorm would break out.

It was also thought to generate lightning, and for this reason was never taken into a house. In parts of England, it was believed to attract adders, Britain’s only poisonous snake, with a notion that anyone picking the flower would be bitten before the year was out.

In spite of being so common, the cuckoo flower has a long and fascinating history and even features in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost as “lady smocks all silver white”.

More usually, the flowers are lilac coloured, but they can also be white. In fact, the plant is related to watercress and its leaves can be safely used in salads. It is also the food plant of the orange-tip butterfly.

Keep a look out for it just now, growing in profusion, particularly along riverbanks, in damp meadows and roadside verges.

You can email me on corbie@homecall.co.uk