Otherwise known as Lady’s Smock this is one of our most attractive spring flowers, brightening up damp pastures and roadside verges across the country with its subtle pink flower-heads. It usually starts to appear around mid-April, about the same time as the first Cuckoos arrive back from Africa – hence the name.
It also appears at the same time as Orange Tips are emerging, which is just as well as it is one of the main foodplants for this butterfly’s caterpillars. The ‘orange-tips’ of the male butterfly warn of its distastefulness, and this is derived from the spicy mustard oils within the Cuckoo Flower (and some of its close relatives). Spring butterflies also take advantage of the nectar.
In the best areas, Cuckoo Flowers can produce an impressive display, forming a pale, shimmering haze across the fields as thousands of unsynchronised flower-heads nod and sway in the breeze. It disappears if grassland is drained or managed too intensively but it seems reasonably resilient overall. Last year it was abundant in the damp, rushy pasture in front of our house, until the farmer turned his cows loose in May and they were eaten (or perhaps trampled) to oblivion within a few days – yet they are back again this year.
Rather disappointingly, the Cuckoo Flower doesn’t make PlantLife’s list of species that are OK to pick though it must surely have come close to qualifying. I don’t think they’d mind if you took a few flowers from a place where it is still common. It’s a great plant to try with young children because they love the idea of eating flowers and the petals have a distinctive hot, peppery taste. As they are munching you can explain that our prettiest spring butterfly depends on this plant for fuel, to keep it safe from hungry birds and as a site to lay its eggs.
Mark writes: it is a good year for Cuckoo Flower at my local patch of Stanwick Lakes this year. When I am back in the country I’ll be looking for Orange Tip butterfly eggs on them – it’s a traditional spring thing for me!