Monday, August 19, 2013

A plant with 100 names

Until a few years ago we had just one plant of cuckoo pint Arum maculatum in our garden but every year more appear - probably because the blackbirds are eating the ripe fruits and dispersing their seeds. I reached this one before the blackbirds found it.  It's well known that cuckoo pint berries are dangerously poisonous to humans but birds seem immune to its toxins, as they are to those of many other poisonous plants, including deadly nightshade.

Cuckoo pint is a fascinating plant in many ways. Most of the aroid family, to which it belongs, are native to warmer climates and include the spectacular titan arum and the voodoo lily, whose stench is breathtakingly awful . Almost all aroids have fascinating pollination mechanisms and cuckoo pint is no exception, trapping small insects such as owl midges in its inflorescence until they pollinate the flowers - you can find photos and an explanation by clicking  here.

Cuckoo pint is just one of over a hundred regional vernacular names for this plant, which is unusual in being a rare example of a single species in the British flora that has had a whole book devoted to it, under one of its aliases - Lords and Ladies by Cecil T. Prime, published in 1960 as a special volume in the Collins New Naturalist series. It's well worth seeking out a copy of this scholarly but highly readable book, in which Prime describes every aspect of the plant's biology and history, including its use in the production of starch for stiffening the extravagant  ruffs worn by Elizabethan courtiers. During this period starch was produced from cuckoo pint's tubers when starch from wheat was in short supply.

Later the industry was relived on the Isle of Portland in southern England and Prime describes the hazards of the laborious extraction process, quoting John Gerard: "The most pure and white starch is made of the roots of Cuckow-pint; but most hurtful to the hands of the Laundresses that hath the handling of it, for it choppeth, blistereth, and maketh hands rough and ragged and withall smarting"

The hurt was caused by needle-sharp crystals of calcium oxalate which are present in high concentrations in the tubers and in other parts of the plant - you can see photographs of similar crystals in another plant by clicking here.

It must have been incredibly laborious work - last year I dug up a cuckoo pint tuber from the garden and found that it was about the size of an acorn; vast numbers would need to be harvested to produce starch in commercial quantities. Remarkably, the industry continued in Italy (in Tuscany) using the closely related Arum italicum right up until 1919.

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