Why picking a milkmaid or lady's smock is just asking for trouble

A WALK with my wife through some meadows at the base of our dale revealed a massive number of milkmaids.

These were not the human species, however, they were wild flowers. The name can be misleading because several wild species bear the local name of milkmaid, while their official title is something completely different. A milkmaid in one part of the country is not necessarily the same in another.

In my case, the milkmaids were growing in a meadow thick with buttercups along with a variety of other flowers and grasses, but they were prominent due to their height and colour. Their more formal name is cuckoo flower (cardamine pratensis) and they can grow to a height of about 2ft (60cm). The specimens we saw were about half that height and bore distinctive lilac flowers; the colour can vary from a pale lilac to white, but they are very common and very pretty.

They were named cuckoo flower because they bloom in spring, while the cuckoo is in this country, from April until June. The name appears to be very old because the 16th century herbalist, John Gerard, explained that its name came from this link with the cuckoo, although another 16th century reason for the name is that the flower's foliage is often covered with cuckoo spit. Cuckoo spit has nothing to do with cuckoos, however; it is the white foam produced to conceal the nymphs of the froghopper (see D&S Times, June 9).

An alternative common name for the cuckoo flower is lady's smock and it was this long association with maids and their smocks which gave the flower a romantic association. When Christianity came to these islands, that feminine association was transferred to the Virgin Mary, which led to a host of other names for the flower, such as my lady's smock, lady's glove and dozens more.

There is one old story which says that St Helena found Our Lady's smock in a cave near Bethlehem, an article of clothing she left behind. It was later taken to St Sophia and then to Aix la Chapelle, where it was venerated for centuries, with this little wild flower being named in several European countries in honour of that relic.

In Europe, a lot of superstition used to surround this flower. It was thought that if anyone picked it, a thunderstorm would break out. It was also thought to generate lightning and for this reason was never taken into a house. In parts of England, it was believed to attract adders, Britain's only poisonous snake, with a notion that anyone picking the flower would be bitten before the year was out.

In spite of being so common, the cuckoo flower has a long and fascinating history and even features in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost as "lady smocks all silver white". More usually, the flowers are lilac coloured, but they can also be white. In fact, the plant is related to watercress and its leaves can be safely used in salads.

Incidentally, it has dozens of other local names, but I think milkmaid and lady's smock are the most common.

One of the other numerous wild flowers known as milkmaid is the wood anemone, also called the windflower because it is said to bloom when the wind blows. This pretty white flower, which appears throughout springtime in our woodlands, looks extremely delicate, but in fact it is quite tough, well able to withstand strong winds without its slender stems breaking. The flowers do not smell very nice, and for this reason are sometimes known as smell foxes.

We find the name milkmaid also being applied to the white campion. This is a relative of the red campion, a common plant of our roadside verges, hedgerows, woods, cliffs and even mountains. White campions, which have a faint but pleasant scent, are often found on farmland, where they are regarded as a troublesome weed. But, if they grow near red campions, the two will often hybridise to produce flowers ranging from white to red in various shades. In some parts of Europe, there used to be a belief that, if you picked white campions, you or your parents would be killed by lightning, hence an alternative name of thunder flower.

The greater stitchwort is another flower which is also known as milkmaid and, curiously, it also bears the name thunder flower in parts of Europe where picking it was thought to trigger storms.

With tiny white flowers, this plant is very fragile and requires the proximity of other plants for support, but it is very common in woodland and hedgerows.

Its name has nothing to do with stitches of the kind we might find in lady's smocks - it comes from the fact that a concoction was made from this plant and acorns, then drunk in wine to cure a pain - or stitch - in one's side.

The oxlip, a cross between a cowslip and primrose, is also called milkmaid in some parts of the country, as is that scourge of the hedgerow, convolvulus. Not surprisingly, convolvulus is also known as Devil's Guts!

In last week's column, I wrote of a female blackbird who had built a nest almost within arm's length of our conservatory window.

Before our eyes, she carefully built her nest and then proceeded to lay her eggs with the clear intention of raising a brood.

We could watch her on the nest, sometimes attended by a handsome male who would then sing lustily in our cherry tree. Even when some of our grandchildren played nearby, she steadfastly sat on her nest, leaving it only to have a drink or wash in our birdbath, or perhaps to seek some food.

Then, a couple of days before compiling these notes, we noticed she was spending more time in the garden, sitting in the cherry tree for long periods, parading upon the lawn in her search for worms or bathing several times in the birdbath.

This coincided with the visit of a neighbour's cat, which we chased away - the cat is a determined hunter and, even though it wears a bell around its neck, it will not cease its endless forays into areas where birds are nesting.

I felt confident the cat would not be able to reach our blackbird's nest and perhaps it didn't, but when I went to inspect it, I found two tiny fragments of blue eggshell inside the nest, with two eggs broken on the ground. Something had removed the eggs, which contained embryos at an advanced stage, and I am not sure whether a cat would do so. Other predators could have been responsible, such as the grey squirrels which live nearby, or perhaps a marauding magpie, rat or anything else. Obviously, we felt dreadfully sorry for the blackbird, which had nested rather late in the year.

For her part, however, she seemed unperturbed. She went about her routine in the garden with no sign of sorrow as her beau continued to serenade us all from the cherry tree. And then, the evening before writing this column, I was enjoying a glass of cool wine in the sun-drenched garden when I spotted our blackbird. She was inspecting the climbers on the wall of the garage, pushing herself deep behind the roses and clematis as she began to inspect what seemed to be a new nesting site. She explored several locations as her mate sang above and, as I watched only a few feet away, she explored for several minutes before heading for the birdbath for yet another dip.

So is she going to try again? The sites on our garage would appear to be safe from predators - indeed, inches above one of her potential sites is a place where house sparrows regularly nest under the tiles and, as I watched, our blue tits were busy feeding their brood in a nestbox only a couple of feet from her. Maybe she has seen those other birds successfully rear their young? As I write these notes, I have not seen her this morning, but will watch developments with increased interest.

Tomorrow is the feast day of St John the Baptist, and also Midsummer Day. In this region, it was always the day before which agriculturalists should never cut thistles - if you cut them too early, they will multiply. "Cut your thistles before St John, and you'll have two instead of one."

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