Cuckoo-pints or Lords-and-Ladies

Leaves and flower of a cuckoo-pint. The leaves are arrow shaped.

A poke about in a shady wild spot, or in a your garden may reveal this striking plant which has just started to flower. A member of the Arum or Lily family, Cuckoo-pints make look innocuous. They are actually clever traps, inveigling in unwitting flies with a meaty smell (not nice) and warmth, then preventing them from leaving with slippery slopes and spiky protuberances.

Only once the flies have pollinated the female flowers, does the outside structure shrivel and release the flies. The flies, now covered with pollen from the male flowers in the structure, then get tempted into another cuckoo-pint flower and the process starts all over again. Who would have thought all this was going on in quiet Burwell lanes?

I found Cuckoo-pints in flower yesterday, just after I heard my first cuckoo calling across the Fen. This plant has a number of names, either, like cuckoo-pint, after its flowering with the arrival of cuckoos, or those like lords-and-ladies or Adam-and-Eve after its phallic shape and combination of male and female flowers down the inner ‘spike’, (the spadix).

I have known this plant for a long time. Today is the first time I’ve taken a look inside – I unwrapped the leaf, which is actually the plant’s equivalent of a petal, which protects the flowering sexual parts. Inside I caught my breath when I found this complex structure.

Inside a cuckoo-pint – an elaborate structure designed to ensure pollination

Fertile female flowers are at the bottom of the structure, (to the left in this photo) these open first. As they open, the flower head releases a strong smell and heat, attracting in small flies. The flies are trapped inside, sliding down the smooth inner surfaces, unable to get out until they have pollinated the flowers. Next to the female flowers are the male flowers – actually lots of tiny flowers making up the ball of brown. Each of these tiny male flowers splits to release pollen. Above this ‘ball’ are the infertile male flowers, which are prickly spikes, which help keep flies trapped inside.

Flowering parts of Cuckoo-pints, illustration from Common Families of Flowering Plants, Michael Hickey and Clive King

The female flowers develop into a head of bright red berries. These are poisonous – indeed much of the plant can cause an allergic reaction if the juices get on the skin.

However, I’d still advocate taking a close look at one of these flowers – they are extraordinary. Carefully roll back the outer circling leaves and look inside. Have a whiff and see if you would be attracted in, like the flies!

Play count the pints and see how many you can find. If each will have about 30 berries how many plants will that be to grow?

After leaving the flower in the sun in the kitchen, I saw that the male flowers had split and grains of pollen were pouring out. Extraordinary. If you have one of these plants in the garden, this is another to look at through a magnifying glass, or take close up photos – like a look into another world.

Pollen pours out of the split sides of the male flowers

2 thoughts on “Cuckoo-pints or Lords-and-Ladies

  1. Eileen 23rd Apr 2020 / 6:24 pm

    Jo, I think of cuckoo pints as consisting of a cluster of red berries. Is that the same plant? And at what stage of development do the berries appear if so?
    I am loving your blog, by the way. It is giving new focus to my daily ration of walking. Thank you!

    Like

    • jojones20 24th Apr 2020 / 11:02 am

      You are right, the female flowers at the base of the cuckoo-pints’ flower head develop into berries. The surrounding ‘leaf’ dies and drops off, revealing a cluster of bright red berries in the autumn. Really glad you are enjoying the blog.

      Like

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