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Cuckoo flower. Past and present medicinal uses.

Updated on August 9, 2015

Frothy flowers of Cardamine pratensis



The Cuckoo flower, also referred to as Lady's Smock, and Milk maids belong to the Cruciferae order of plants { formerly Brassicales} and placed in the Brassica family. they have been allocated the genus name of Cardamine and the specific name of pratensis. { of the fields}.

The common names of Lady's smock is a dedication to the Virgin Mary, as it is said to come into flower on Lady's day. The name Milkmaids conjures up the image of Milkmaids with their milking buckets in Springtime.

Here we review the past medicinal uses of this pretty flower through the observations and medical notes of past herbalists and physicians, along with modern day uses in herbal medicine. As always we start with a description of the subject under review.

Components of the Cuckoo flower

Billeder of Norden's Flora.
Billeder of Norden's Flora.

Cuckoo flowers


Description of the Cuckoo Flower.

The root of this species is perennial, whitish, firm, branched and it sends off many long cylindrical fibres. From the root there arises an upright stem, cylindrical, generally simple, smooth and attaining the height of a foot {30 cm }.

The foliage consists of two types. The radical leaves at the base consist of 5-9 leaflets, these tend to be hard to observe for two reasons. the first is that they are very often hidden by taller grasses among which the plant grows. The second reason is the fact that they tend to die away much earlier then the stem foliage. The two types are shown in the image above. The stem leaves are much more divided into more linear leaflets. Both types are terminated with a single larger leaflet.

The flowers are produced at the top of the stem in loose, raceme-like clusters. The calyx {sepals etc} consists of four oblong, obtuse, concave,deciduous, slightly spreading sepals, two of which are protuberant at the base. The four petals are much larger than the calyx, they are nearly round and cruciform {forming an a cross-X}. they have a small tooth and claw, they are marked with conspicuous veins of a whitish pink or pale purple colour. When seen growing and flowering in abundance they give the grass land a bubbly frothy appearance. Indeed the German name for the plant Wiesen-Schaumfraut, { froth of the meadows} is a very apt description. This has inspired poets.

" Lady-Smocks all silver white

Do paint the meadows with delight" { Shakespeare}

" Bright crown-imperial, King's-spear, Hollyhocks,

Sweet Venus navel, and soft Lady-Smocks" { Ben Joenson }

The flowers are succeeded by the fruits which are elongated pods { in botanical parlance they are called silicle's}, they are linear, compressed,with two valves, which roll back in a spiral manner from the base to the summit. They are divided into two cells each containing numerous roundish seeds in a single row.

It frequents damp and wet meadows, marshes and the sides of ditches throughout the UK and many other countries including the North Eastern United states and all of Canada.

Illustration of Lady;s smock

Familiar Wild flowers. { 1878 }
Familiar Wild flowers. { 1878 }

The flower was believed to be sacred to fairies.

An Illustration from the 'Water babies" by Warwick Goble . Wikicommons Public domain
An Illustration from the 'Water babies" by Warwick Goble . Wikicommons Public domain

General information.

" And at sweet may-tide, when the cowslip hung,

Its head in pensivness,and crow-flowers bright

Along the expanse of lengthening meads were flung,

Mingled with Lady-smocks and daisies white"

{ part of a poem by Milhouse}.

The common name of Cuckoo flower derives from the time of its flowering , which is the end of April and the beginning of May. According to John Gerarde { 1500's} " They floure for the most part in April and May, when the Cuckow begins to sing her pleasant note without stammering"

Goats and horses were said to be fond of the herbage of this plant, cows are said to dislike it, and swine were said to refuse it. bees and other insects visit the flowers and it is one of the food plants of the orange tip butterfly. The flowers are in the main fertilized by insects, however, if the insects do not arrive in time, the longer stamens press against the stigma and pollinate it. They also reproduce by means of vegetation. The small roundish,basal leaflets that lie on the damp ground produce rootlets from which new little plants arise from the axils of the leaflets.

Legend has it that the flower is sacred to the fairies, and bad luck would befall anyone who took them indoors. In Germany it was believed that if you picked them your house would be struck by lightning. The French believed they were the favourite flower of the Adder, and if they were picked to use in May Garlands, you would be bitten by an Adder before the following May.

In Ireland it was believed that an animal or person born on May Day had the Evil Eye and to avert it the baby's eyes had to be washed with the juice of this flower.

Orange tip butterfly feeding on Cuckoo flower. | Source

Historical medicinal Uses.

This species has often been referred to as being slightly excitant and anti-scorbutic and was sometimes employed as a diuretic. Sir Goerge baker {1800's}, first brought the flowers of the flowers of the plant into notice as an anti-spasmodic, and on his authority they were admitted into the British Pharmacopoeias. In his 'Medical Transactions' Vol one page-442}, he relates to five cases,two of Chorea sandi viti, one of spasmodic asthma and hemiphlegia { paralysis of one side of the body, usually as a result of a brain injury, accompanied by convulsions on the palsied side, and a case of remarkable spasmodic affection of the lower limbs. The first two were cured within a month; the following two were also removed, but in the last case the patient, after experiencing some relief, was seized with a fever that proved to be fatal.

In a subsequent work he says-" Since the First Edition of this volume, I have seen several instances of the good effects of the flowers in convulsive disorders.

From the MS of Dr. T.Robinson {Dale Pharmacologia page 204}, it would appear that he also found the flowers a useful remedy in convulsions. Greding, { Ludwig medico-pract Vol 3 page 546} tried it on epilepsy and experienced only one instance of its good effects. Michaelis, {Richt Bibl Vol 4 page 120} relates a case of chorea, in which a drachm of flowers given every six hours,effected a complete cure, so that the paroxysm {fit or convulsion} did not return after the first dose, and in six weeks the patient was free from all traces of the disorder.

In the Willich, Domestic Encyclopedia Vol 3 page 58 it states that there is on record that the flowering tops had allegedly been successful in treating epilepsy over many generations in Cornwall {SW.England}.. In some northern counties of England they used to pound the whole plant, and express the juice, of which, they took a wine glassful as a dose. This was reputed to be an excellent tonic in scorbutic diseases and obstruction of the liver, spleen or mesenteric glands, also in jaundice, dropsy,and diseases of the urinary tract.

The dose of the dried and powdered flowers was administered at a drachm to two drachms at a time.

Culpeper, {1600's} states " They are excellent for the treatment of scurvy, they provoke urine and break the stone, and excellently warm a weak and cold stomach, restoring lost appetite and help digestion." he recommended the plant to be used in a fresh state.

By the 1900's the use of the cuckoo flower in herbal medicine had diminished greatly, with the exception that an infusion was taken to help relieve digestion.

The above notes are for historical interest only and not intended as a guide for self medication.

Cuckoo flower in meadow land


Modern day uses.

The Cuckoo flower/Lady Smock is a close relative of the Hairy bittercress. Medicinally the components include Bitters, and Minerals, for example Potassium, iron, magnesium and high levels of Vitamin C. because of its high mineral content the plant has a strengthening and invigorating effect and is often a constituent of natural medicines.

The dried plant may be used to prepare an infusion to counteract stubborn coughs and abdominal cramps. It has long been considered as effective in treating the symptoms of menstrual disorders.

For medicinal purposes it is recommended that the plant is dried in bundles in a shady place, for any preparation that require the dried herb or powders ect. To extract the juice the fresh plant is crushed and place in a muzzlin, squeeze hard to extract the juice. The recommended dosage is 4-5 tablespoons daily.

A compress can be made to treat rheumatic pains. Pour a cup of hot water over two heaped tea spoons of chopped foliage. Infuse for ten minutes or so. Soak a cotton cloth in the infusion and apply to the affected area.

It is used in Homeopathy to treat stomach cramps..As with any herbs or indeed conventional medicine try a little if it is the first time of trying it out. this will test the your body tolerance level.

For the Forager

It is said to have a taste somewhat like that of Watercress. The young leaves, young stems and flowers {even in bud} are all edible. A few of the stem leaves, which have a hot peppery taste,as well as the flowers may be used in salads. The flowers, enhance the bland green colour of salads and, the foliage,also counteracts the coldness of salads.

The flowers can be made into a puree by mixing them with lemon juice, olive oil, a pinch of salt, black pepper and finely chopped pine nuts.

Foragers are advised to gather the plant at the start of the flowering season for culinary purposes.

As with medicinal preparations , if you are using the plant parts in culinary preparations try a little first to test your body tolerance level. This is purely precautionary for allergic reactions, the plant is not in any way poisonous.

An appetizing salad

Many wild {and garden} flowers can be used to brighten up a dull looking salad.
Many wild {and garden} flowers can be used to brighten up a dull looking salad. | Source


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    • Joy56 profile image


      4 years ago

      I was looking around for a photo to steal to inspire me..... Wrote a new hub today. Any way....... Take a look and do you have a photo or too for me to use ... You no the kind that inspires me x

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi good to see you here. You are right on both counts. Best wishes to you.

    • Joy56 profile image


      4 years ago

      So many uses some flowers have..... Not just pretty faces...

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, glad you enjoyed it, they are beautiful flowers. Thank you for your usual appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Definitely another great beauty! Thanks for the fabulous descriptions, history, and previous uses for this wonderful piece of natural history.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Thank you for your visit and for sharing the lines of Tennyson your kind comments are appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      Hi Devika, thank you for your usual encouraging comments. I am glad you enjoy your local flora there is so much to learn about them and their uses. Thanks for the vote up. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Cuckoo flower. Past and present medicinal uses is an interesting and helpful hub, as always you write educational hubs. I often take long walks in the wild and enjoy looking around for different plants and herbs we have many different species up in the mountains and I have seen something similar but not quite sure. Voted up!

    • blueheron profile image

      Sharon Vile 

      5 years ago from Odessa, MO

      A lovely hub, with lovely pictures. I was not familiar with the literary references you mentioned, but here's another: "The honeysuckle round the porch has woved its wavy bowers, and by the meadow trenches blows the faint sweet cuckoo flower." Tennyson's "May Queen"


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