By James Duncan
Learning & Engagement Officer
Lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum) is a common perennial plant, often forming clumps in shady woodlands, hedgerows, scrubland and gardens - pretty much anywhere with damp, nutrient-rich soil. You may well know it by another name, for in parallel with its common distribution it also happens to have a simply staggering assortment of vernacular names. In fact, it's likely these names total well over a hundred. An overwhelming majority of these have a connotation with love and sexual desire, relating to the plant's highly unusual curvaceous appearance and apparent suggestiveness to male and female genitalia. Even the commonly known alternative of 'Cuckoo Pint' is derived from pintle, which is an Old English word for the male genitalia. The most polite explanation for referencing Cuckoo may simply infer a similar flowering time to the arrival of the migrant bird. Lords-and-ladies itself is of course a tad suggestive, but no more so than other names such as 'Adam and Eve', 'Cows and Bulls', 'Sweethearts' and 'Silly lovers.' Lords-and-ladies itself may actually have arisen in Victorian times to 'cover-up' some of the more colourful vernacular, many of which are really quite lewd. It's undoubtedly a plant that has stirred the human imagination and ultimately there's probably a common name to suit everyone's taste.
Whatever the name, Arum maculatum has a fascinatingly ingenious method of reproduction. Its strategy relates quite typically to attracting insects, but its approach is rather unusual. Early in the year it appears no different from any other, the large arrow-shaped leaves appearing on a long stalk and sometimes with dark spots. It's only in mid-spring that a fleshy leaf-like hood appears from the ground, the so-called spathe. This may be white-ish or purple-ish in colour and it's only as it unfurls that it reveals a poker-shaped inflorescence called a spadix - this arrangement is the root of all the racy common names, but is technically a fabulous fly-trap. Within the deceptive cloak of the spathe lie the true flowers, which are submerged toward the base. The purpose of the spadix is to emit a rather pungent stench as a means to attract insects, predominantly small flies such as midges. The spadix is able to raise the ambient temperature and may smell particularly foetid in the evening when the chemicals produced become volatile. The spathe will entrap the insects, imprisoning them beneath a ring of backward-pointing hairs derived from sterile male flowers. The seed-producing female flowers are located right at the bottom and offer a suitable secreted reward for the prisoners. Assuming they've already visited another Arum, pollination will occur. At night, a selection of male flowers (located above the female flowers) will 'rain' pollen onto the flies and the hairs will wither, finally releasing them (or at least some of them) from their prison, setting them off to pollinate another individual. Timing for ths whole process is critical.
Eventually the spathe will wither away and all that will be left is the freshly fertilised female flowers, a small spike of fruits, a common sight in woodland in autumn when they eventually ripen and turn bright red. They may look tempting, but Lords-and-ladies is highly toxic. The saponins contained within the berries make them acrid and serve as an irritant, promoting swelling, burning and difficulty breathing. This isn't the case for all animals and the berries are routinely eaten, often by Pheasants. The spadix itself is also rather tempting to a variety of rodents, perhaps enticed by the warmth and smell created. The whole plant should be handled with the utmost of care for the sap produced may cause allergic reactions, blistering and burning. Interestingly, Lords-and-ladies has actually seen use over the ages, its root tubers collected to provide starch for laundering linens and Elizabethan ruffs, giving it the alternative name of 'Starchwort.'
Fertilised female flowers © Neil Fletcher