Cuckoopint (Arum Maculatum)

CuckoopintThe cuckoopint is one of only two members of the Arum family to grow wild in this country, even though there are nearly a 1,000 members worldwide.  You can find this plant through much of the year along hedgerows or within more open woodland, but it is most striking in the spring and again in the late summer when it produces a column of bright red berries.

In early spring large glossy leaves with purple blotches appear, followed in April or May by a tall, light green leaf sheath, known as a spathe. Eventually the spathe opens to show a purple/brown column called a spadix.

Now, what I find really fascinating about this plant is that the spadix not only releases an aroma to attract insects, but also becomes warm to the touch – up to 14 degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding ambient temperature, furthering its irresistibility to passing flies. The insects climb down the spadix to find the nectar at the bottom, and by doing so collect pollen on them, ready to be transported to the next plant.

Because of its slightly phallic appearance of the spadix, the cuckoopint has attracted much attention and thus has over a 100 country names such as Lords and Ladies, Kings and Queens, Adam and Eve, Jack in the pulpit, Bishop’s finger, but also interestingly, Starchwort.

This last name gives away an old use for the plant, that of making starch from the bulbous roots. This starch collected from the root was not only used for starching clothes, but also after repeated washing, made into a kind of arrowroot, formerly much prepared in the Isle of Portland, and sold as an article of food under the name of Portland sago, or Portland Arrowroot.

In spite of these uses, without cooking, the whole plant is extremely poisonous and should one try eating the bright red berries for instance, you would quickly have a strong burning sensation around your mouth and would, if you had eaten a few, potentially die in convulsions.

So, altogether an intriguing species, perhaps best looked at and admired – but not handled!

Peter Thompson

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