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Arum maculatum, cuckoopint, lords and ladies

Summary

Though the clump of orange berries formed in the autumn shines out like a beacon in its natural, woodland habitat, their acrid taste and speedy irritation of the mouth means the plant causes little serious harm.

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of cuckoopint is just one of a series.

Family

Araceae


Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

Meaning of the Name

Arum
From the Greek word ‘aron’ which is variously described as meaning ‘climbing’ or ‘poisonous plant’. 
 
maculatum
is ‘speckled’ after the spots which appear on the leaves.  Traditionally, these are supposed to be spots of Christ’s blood when the plant grew under the cross but the Latin ‘maculatus’ also means ‘pollute’, ‘taint’ and ‘dishonour’ as well as ‘spot’ so the name is more likely to be a result of the spots spoiling the look of the leaves.

Common Names and Synonyms

cuckoopint, lords and ladies, wake-robin bod gabhair, Adam and Eve, tender ear, Jack-in-the-pulpit. It is a plant with a great many common names, possibly as many as one hundred. These include mandrake an indication of how relying on common names can result in extreme confusion.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint

Arum maculatum, cuckoopint, berries

Though long believed to contain saponins given the names aronin(e) and aoin(e), work in 1965 found only the oxalates found in Arum italicum. These needle-shaped crystals can irritate the skin, mouth, tongue, and throat, resulting in throat swelling, breathing difficulties, burning pain, and stomach upset.

The orange berries are quite attractive but their acrid taste and the tingling in the mouth which begins quite quickly, mean that large amounts are rarely ingested and serious harm is unusual.

The plant is said to be one of the most common causes of accidental plant poisoning based on attendance at hospital A & E departments though this may be because the irritation of the tongue and mouth is more likely to result in hospital attendance than a simple stomach upset from, say, eating a daffodil bulb thinking it to be an onion.

A study in Switzerland found only one incident, in 29 years, where Arum maculatum produced 'serious' poisoning.

Incidents

In the UK during a four year period, from 1996 to 1999, there were 23 visits to hospital resulting from poisoning by plants from the Arum genus. None resulted in serious harm. The only genus recording a higher total was the Solanum with 31 cases.

A young child ate some Arum berries which her grandmother thought were deadly nightshade. She was given a block of salt to eat to ensure she vomited them up. All she remembered was the appalling taste of the salt.

A young woman decided to eat a leaf from Arum maculatum. Even though she spat it out when she found how unpleasant the taste was, her mouth and cheeks became irritated and sore for a couple of days.

Folklore and Facts

In Theatrum Botanicum, John Parkinson’s 1629 herbal, there are two recipes for Arum maculatum. In one, small pieces of the root are mixed with lettuce and endive. In the other, the dried root is powdered and sprinkled over meat. These recipes are recommended for the ‘unbidden unwelcome guest to a man’s table’ because ‘it will so burne and pricke his mouthe that he shall not be able either to eate a bit more or scarce to speak for paine’.

In Dorset in the 1930s, young girls believed that if they touched the Arum maculatum they would become pregnant. This may follow from the reference is John Lyly’s 1601 play ‘Loves Metamorphosis’ which says ‘They have eaten so much of wake robin, that they cannot sleep for love.’

Many of its common names derive from the appearance of the spathe and spadix. The association with female and male genitalia gives the plant a colourful history.

The name 'cuckoopint' (which should be pronounced to rhyme with 'mint' and not as in 'a pint of milk') came about following disapproval of the name 'priest's pint' which was itself a shortened form of the original 'priest's pintle', meaning 'penis', because the irreverent said that the spathe resembled the oversized ornate pulpits of the time which meant lowly parishioners could only see the randy priest's pintle (the spadix) sticking above the lectern.

The Victorians tried to promulgate the name 'our Lord and our Lady' hoping to move away from the sexual connotations by claiming that the spathe represented the Virgin Mary using her cloak to shield the infant Jesus represented by the spadix.