Monday, 6 March 2006

Late winter greenery

The first small glimpses of spring are always reassuring, splashes of colour as early flowers poke above ground. Amid the dull browns and greys of the winter’s leaf litter are dotted the white of snowdrops and the yellow of winter aconite. Strictly speaking these are late winter-flowering species but nevertheless they point to future stirrings that will herald the true arrival of spring.

One of the plants best able to lift me from the winter gloom is the cuckoo-pint, whose bright, green shoots first break through the soil during February. By now, these shoots have unfurled to reveal broad leaves, shaped like arrowheads and with a waxy texture. Along a major section of my riverside walk to and from work, these newly emerged leaves can be seen. Over the next few weeks, a new shoot will rise from the centre of each plant, lighter green in colour and destined to form a simple flower spike. By this stage other plants will have put on growth and the cuckoo-pint will be far less obvious than it is now. The flower spike will unfurl to form a tapering hood, within which a short column can be seen. Small flies are attracted to the flower spike and are effectively imprisoned overnight, during which time they are fed with nectar and covered with pollen before being released to pollinate another flower. With pollination complete, the plant fades and by July disappears altogether. However, towards the beginning of September the plant re-emerges, pushing up a stout spike carrying scarlet berries, agents for seed dispersal.

Cuckoo-pint has the distinction of being known by more local names than any other British plant. Two of the most familiar are ‘Lords and Ladies’ and ‘Cuckoo-pint’ – the latter being of Anglo-Saxon origin and phallic in nature. All parts of the plant are poisonous, including the walnut-sized tuber from which it grows. This tuber was used as a source of starch and proved popular in Elizabethan England. However, production and use of the starch was not pleasant, the needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate contained in the tuber blistering hands.

The plant has a particular association with Breckland and the River Little Ouse, along which I walk to work. There is a tradition that the nuns who built the covenant at Thetford brought the plant with them from Normandy. When the monks of Ely stole the body of St. Withburga from East Dereham and paused at Brandon, it is held that the nuns of Thetford came down to the riverside and covered the saint’s body with the flowers of Cuckoo-pint. It is uplifting to imagine that the plant has been established here all this time.

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