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Plant of the Month: March 2007

Cuckoo Flower
Cardamine pratensis L.

Circumboreal in range, this sweet wildflower is not native to the Seattle area --being no closer than northern B.C. and southern Alaska. But an apparently European version is a lovely weed here, found in wet grassy meadows. The name Cuckoo flower was explained in 1597 by herbalist John Gerarde: "These floure for the most part in Aprill and May, when the Cuckow begins to sing her pleasant notes without stammering." Other names are Lady's smock (the flowers resemble the shape of milkmaids' smocks), Bread and milk, Meadow cress, Spinks, Milkmaids, and Cuckoo spit. (The name Cuckoo Flower also is applied to another wildflower, Lychnis Flos-cuculi L.)
Near the end of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost we find these lines:

    "When daisies pied and violets blue
    And lady-smocks all silver white
    And Cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
    Do paint the meadows with delight,
    The cuckoo then on every tree
    Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
    Cuckoo, cuckoo: O, word of fear,
    Unpleasing to a married ear!"

    Seattle's wild version of Cuckoo flower is an evergreen perennial, reproducing mainly vegetatively; any leaf can send out roots. Each leaf is pinnately compound; the lower leaflets are rounded, the leaflets up on the stem are narrow. The thin, dark green flower stems grow 10 to 40 inches tall and are hairless. White, pink, or pale lilac flowers of elegant charm appear from (late March) April through May (early June). They are about half an inch to three-quarters of an inch wide, consisting of 4 petals. Most seedpods --in Seattle-- are weak, little, and seedless; some reach 1 and an eighth inches long and are seeded. Cuckoo flower is very common in east-central Seattle: Since it is spread by mowers, it grows in wetter parts of lawns in all the parks. Washington Park Arboretum is a good place to see it. When the lawns are too wet to mow in spring, Cuckoo flower is at its finest. Companion plants found with it include three weedy European perennials: lawn daisy (Bellis perennis), thymeleaf speedwell (Veronica Serpyllifolia), creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens); and a native moss Rhytidiophyllus squarrosus. Presumably Cuckoo flower would be still more common in Seattle if it regularly set seeds. It must set a few seeds, to account for different floral colors seen here.
    The flavor of Cuckoo flower is hot and peppery, reminiscent of watercress or horseradish --as that of all Cardamine species. The 1753 genus name Cardamine is a diminutive name from the Greek Kardamon used by Dioscorides for some cress --such as watercress, NOT the tropical Old World ginger relative delicious spice Elletaria Cardamomum (L.) Maton. Over 200 years ago, Linnaeus named a related English weed Cardamine amara, meaning bitter. Writers subsequently transferred the inaccurate name Bitter cress to ALL Cardamine species, and it is one of the largest genera in the mustard family. Some 200 species of Cardamine grow in temperate regions and tropical mountains --this includes species previously classified as in the genus Dentaria. The various Cardamine tend to bear white, pink or purple flowers ---not yellow-- and slender explosive seedpods. Most kinds of Cardamine that I have nibbled raw, tasted more or less alike, and none of them would I describe as bitter. I can taste an obvious distinction between C. pratensis and the other species. The flowers, immature seedpods, stems and leaves of all species are edible, raw or cooked. The Cardamine I have eaten are as follows:

C. flexuosa With.
Wavy, Bending, or Flexuous Bittercress
Common annual or short-lived perennial Eurasian weed.

C. hirsuta L.
Hairy Bittercress. Shotweed
Ubiquitous annual or biennial European weed. (My March 2002 plant-of-the-month)

C. hirsuta ssp. oligosperma (Nutt.) Schultz
= C. oligosperma Nutt.
Little Western Bittercress
Very rare native woodland annual. Plants so-called are usually ordinary C. hirsuta.

C. Nuttallii Greene
= C. pulcherimma Greene var. tenella (Pursh) C.L. Hitchc.
Slender Toothwort. Beautiful Bittercress
Native woodland perennial wildflower. Extirpated from Seattle.

C. occidentalis (S. Wats. ex B.L. Robins.) T.J. Howell
= C. pratensis var. occidentalis S. Wats. ex B.L. Robins.
Western Bittercress
Very rare native woodland perennial of Oregon & Washington.

C. penyslvanica Muhl. ex Willd.
Pennsylvania Bittercress
Native North American short-lived perennial.

C. pratensis L.
Cuckoo flower

C. raphanifolia Pourr.
= C. latifolia Vahl, non Lej.
Greater Cuckoo-flower
Perennial from S European mountains grown as an ornamental.

C. trifolia L.
Trefoil Cress. Trifoliate Bittercress
Evergreen European perennial grown as a shade ornamental. Dark green foliage, snow white flowers. Relatively unthirsty.

    The Cuckoo flower is interesting to geneticists, it being highly variable in its chromosome counts, ranging from 2n = 30, 56, ca. 64, 72. I desire to know the subspecific name of the European race wild in Seattle. For example, it may be C. pratensis ssp. dentata (Schultes) Celak. [= C. pratensis ssp. paludosa (Knaf) Celak.].
    Cultivating members of Cardamine as ornamental garden plants was strongly promoted in the 1990s by Dan Hinkley, then of Heronswood Nursery, Kingston, Washington. Dan thought that more than a dozen species offered lovely spring flowers for the moist, semi-shady garden. I agree, but have personally struggled to keep the plants alive in Seattle's dry summers, being not diligent about watering. I have best luck in heavy soil. Cultivars of Cuckoo flower include: 'Edith', 'Flore Pleno', 'Improperly Dressed', 'Pink Giant', 'Salzach', and 'William'.
    A few minor herbal medicinal uses exist for Cuckoo flower, but it is not remarkably potent. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) in the mid seventeenth century, wrote of Cuckoo flower: "This is very little inferior in all its operations to Watercress" and medicinally "good for scurvy, effectually warms a cold and weak stomack, restores lost appetite and helps digestion." In folklore of parts of England it was considered unlucky to pluck and bring inside Cuckoo flowers

Here is a photograph. . .

Cuckoo flower lawn
Cuckoo flower (and a dandelion) lawn photo by ALJ

Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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