Roger Ratcliffe: Story of a flower that foretells of cuckoos

Walking along a stretch of the Ribble Way between Horton and Helwith Bridge in Saturday's shimmering midday heat I experienced one of nature's great acts of synchronicity.

Roger Ratcliffe found cuckooflowers decorating almost every inch of a footpath on a walk along a section of the Ribble Way.
Roger Ratcliffe found cuckooflowers decorating almost every inch of a footpath on a walk along a section of the Ribble Way.

I saw my first cuckooflowers of the year - actually, I could hardly avoid them since along with dandelions and lesser celandines they seemed to decorate almost every inch of footpath. And then from the quarried limestone slopes of Moughton Nab came the calling of my very first cuckoo in 2018.

The flower is so-named because by tradition its appearance in late April or early May is said to be an accurate predictor of the arrival of cuckoos, a discovery which is attributed to the 16th century botanist and herbalist John Gerard.

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The cuckooflower is traditionally held to be an accurate predicator of the arrival of cuckoos. Picture by Mark Hamblin/RSPB/PA Wire.

This phenomenon is not something I have been in a position to record over the years, but a national survey in 1994 demonstrated that there is, in fact, more to the claim than rural myth. Interestingly, the further north the observations were made the more synchronised became the dates for the first cuckooflower and cuckoo.

At this time of year the plant is pretty common in meadows where there is a bit of dampness as well as along ditches and riverbanks. It is particularly associated with Cheshire, where it has become the county emblem just as Yorkshire has the white rose. At first glance you might decide that the flower’s four petals are pale pink, but closer inspection reveals them to be very faintly tinged with lilac. To picture the delicate shade, imagine several items of white silk clothing being handwashed with a non-colourfast mauve sock for just a few moments before the mistake was discovered.

It is such a lovely flower that people find it hard to see a connection with cabbages. But connection there is: along with other common plants like wallflower, shepherd’s-purse and coralroot it belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which also includes oil-seed rape and watercress. Indeed, foragers love to add cuckooflower leaves to salads because they add a peppery watercress-like note.

Many people call the cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) by other names but as a birdwatcher I’ve always favoured cuckooflower. Some know it as the fairy flower, the May flower and the coco plant. In more common usage is the lady’s-smock, a name that’s sometimes prefixed with the word “our”. The origin of this is said be a story that the Virgin Mary left a cloak in a cave outside Bethlehem, and centuries later the garment ended up at the shrine of Aix la Chapelle in Aachen, Germany. Those who saw the original “lady’s-smock” there gave that name to the flower because it had the same delicate colour.

In Yorkshire I’ve heard people refer to the flowers as milkmaids, although that risks confusion with wood anemones and white campions, which share the nickname. And as with other wildflowers, there are local superstitions attached to cuckooflowers. One is that if you pick them to bring indoors be prepared for thunder and lightning.