Cuckoopint

(Arum maculatum) The scarlet berries are poisonous, and the whole plant has an acrid juice. Tricks used to be played on children and simple people by giving them a small piece of the root to chew. It tastes alright at first, but then the victim experiences a horrible burning sensation that lasts a long time (Carr). That acrid sensation is caused by aroine, an unstable toxin that is produced from the plant and can cause blistering of the skin. But the plant was once cultivated on the Isle of Portland for the tubers, which when cooked yielded Portland Sago, as it was called, used as a substitute for arrowroot. It was quite popular at one time because it was thought to be aphrodisiac, as the very form of the plant proclaimed. Portland Sago was a "pure and white starch", as Gerard said, "but most hurtfull to the hands of the Laundresse that hath the handling of it, for it chappeth, blistereth, and maketh the hands rough and rugged, and withall smarting". This starch was at one time used in the French cosmetic called Cypress powder (Folkard), which, used on the face, made it dazzling white.

The aphrodisiac claim resulted from the form of growth of the plant, the spadix in the spathe, which to the common people stood for copulation. Friend.1883 said the cuckoo-pint is the symbol of zeal or ardour, and this may very well have been his way of giving some respectability to the subject. The very name of the plant, Cuckoo-pint, proclaims its reputation, for 'pint' is short for 'pintel', penis. Another of its names, Wake Robin, seems to say the same. 'Robin', so Prior claimed, is from the French robinet, which he said meant penis (quite possible, as the word in modern French means a tap). Wake Pintel is also recorded; 'wake' probably means alive, so the name actually means erect penis. Shakespeare certainly understood the name perfectly, and so did his audience. He makes the mad Ophelia sing, "For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy". So it is not surprising that cuckoo-pint was reckoned to be aphrodisiac. A quite recent name, Willy Lily (Mabey.1998), is as ribald as any of the many names attached to the plant, a lot of them significantly male + female (Lords-and-ladies is an example), Even some of the superstitions involving the plant have sexual overtones. They used to say in Cambridgeshire that it was very unlucky to bring the plant indoors, for it gave TB to anyone who went near it (Porter. 1969). The real reason may have been forgotten, but this kind of superstition is usually directed against the females of the house, and it would not be TB they would get. A Dorset belief is quite explicit - young girls were told never to touch a cuckoo-pint; if they did, they would become pregnant (Vickery. 1985).

Root preparations have been given for medicinal purposes, in cases of asthma, rheumatism, jaundice and dropsy (Barton & Castle). Such a preparation is still used in homeopathy. Gypsies have always used the plant to cure their ailments. A root decoction, or an infusion of dry powdered flowers, was used to relieve croup or bronchitis (Vesey-Fitzgerald), and a leaf infusion is a gypsy treatment for chills and colds (Boase).

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