Above, from left: Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) growing in Bonnefont Garden; Detail from The Unicorn in Captivity that shows cuckoo-pint growing within the enclosure; Italian arum, (Arum italicum) growing in Bonnefont Garden.
Of all the spring-blooming “cuckoo plants” (see “Sumer is Icumen In,” April 3, 2009) associated not only with the bird but with magic, sexuality, snakes, and death, the cuckoo-pint or wake-robin is the most famous.
The form of the flower is peculiar to the botanical family known as the Araceae, which includes tropical species from Africa as well as European woodland flowers and the American natives Jack-in-the-pulpit and skunk cabbage. The flower consists of a hood, or spathe, and a rod, or spadix. (Note the purplish, fleshy color of the spadix above). The form of the cuckoo-pint suggested copulation to the medieval mind, and the plant was known by a number of names that expressed either its venereal character (”Adam and Eve,” “lords and ladies,” “cuckoo-pintle,” and “wake-robin”) or its sinister aspect (”adder’s food” or “snake’s meat”).
The mark of the cuckoo-pint’s bad character was a blackish-purple spotting on the leaves, which appears to be a defect, but which is natural to the plant. This spot is the macula of the specific name maculatum, which is Latin for “stained.” The stock we now grow in the garden lacks this spotting; I am reasonably sure that it is indeed Arum maculatum, but it may be a garden form from which the spots have been bred out. (Since the spots appear to be necrotic and give the impression that the plant is diseased, they would be considered undesirable in an ornamental plant.) However, the characteristic spotting can be seen on the leaves of the single cuckoo-pint that peeps through the rails of the captive Unicorn’s enclosure (see detail image above). We are searching for the true species, spots and all, and should be able to obtain seed from a European botanical garden.
The tuberous roots of the cuckoo-pint are starchy. The tubers were used in a nutritious preparation similar to arrowroot that was consumed in the Middle Ages and long after. They were not only a food but also an aphrodisiac, cf. John Lyly’s amorous foresters, who “have eaten so much wake-robin that they cannot sleep for love” (The Complete Works of John Lyly, Richard Warwick Bond, Published by The Clarendon Press, 1902).
The tubers had to be dried and heated before consumption because they contain an acrid substance that causes a burning, prickling sensation in the mouth when eaten fresh, as do the red berries that ripen in autumn. Sixteenth-century laundresses used the starch to stiffen ruffs, and the great English herbalist John Gerard remarked that the women’s hands were chapped, blistered, and smarting from handling it.
More on arums, and their noisome odor, to come . . .