Ladys Smock

(Cardaminepratensis) Any plant that has "Lady" in its vernacular name must be associated in some way with the Virgin Mary; indeed, this is dedicated to her, for it appears in bloom round about Lady Day (25 March) (Inwards). Nevertheless, it has distinct connections with the fairies. For this reason, it was never included in the May garland, nor probably in any other bouquet. In some districts it used to be said that if a few sprigs of it got into the May garland by mistake, it was not enough to pull them out. The whole lot had to be taken to pieces and remade (Hole. 1976). The exception is Oxford, the one place that allowed them in the garland (Hole. 1975).

Is this the reason for the French superstition recorded by Sebillot, that it was the favourite flower of snakes? Mothers warned children not to touch them, for fear of being bitten by a snake some time in the coming year. They are certainly unlucky flowers. Oxford children may put them in their May garlands, but they would not be allowed to bring them indoors (Oxfordshire and District Folkore Society. Annual Record; 1951). If the identification is correct, it seems that Northamptonshire children used to pick the leaves one by one for a divination of the 'Rich man poor man' type. The last leaf would indicate the condition of their future partners (Sternberg).

The young leaves have proved a useful anti-scorbutic in their time. Hill. 1754 thought the juice of the fresh leaves "an excellent diuretic, and ... good for the gravel". They have been used for hysteria, and epilepsy, too (Hulme). Thornton rather ambitiously reported that "St Vitus's dance ... has yielded to these flowers." In Russian folk medicine, it is sometimes combined with an infusion of haws for angina pectoris remedies (Kourennoff), but it is the haws that is the important element in this case. In the Highlands, it was reckoned good for reducing fevers (Beith).

A smock, from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, was a woman's undergarment, usually linen, worn next to the body. The word was replaced in the 18th century by 'shift', because of the innuendo 'smock' had attracted to itself. By the next century, 'shift' had lost its refinement, and 'chemise' took its place (Buck). 'Smock' had come to have coarse associations quite early on, probably in the 17th century, and 'smick', which was the same as smock, gave the word to smicker, which means "to have amorous looks and purpose" (Grigson. 1955). Smick-smock as a name for this plant, is recorded quite widely in the south of England, and there is even Smell-smock, too (Grigson. 1955, Morley). Nevertheless, this is still the Virgin's smock that is being celebrated. Smock becomes 'flock', or 'cloak', as Lady's Flock and Lady's Cloak. 'Flock', though, is very descriptive. The word means tufts of wool, and Lady's Smock can give this appearance when seen at a distance.

The other very common name for this plant is Cuckooflower, very widespread, because it is in flower when the cuckoos are about. It can appear quite simply as Cuckoo (Grigson. 1955), but in Wiltshire it is sometimes known as Water Cuckoo, or Wet Cuckoo (Dartnell & Goddard), a comment on its favoured habitat (Dry Cuckoo is Meadow Saxifrage, Saxífraga granulata). There are more possibilities - Cuckoo-bread, for instance, from Devon and Somerset (Friend. 1882), or Cuckoo-bud (Miller), which Rydén says may have been Shakespeare's invention 'Cuckoo' to 'cuckold' is easily reached, and, it is suggested, 'bud' has the sense of 'horn', which was supposed to grow on a cuckold's head. It is blodau'r gog in Welsh (Hardy), and it is Glauchsblume, or Kukkuksblume in Germany (Grimm), where in some parts they claim that it grows abundantly where the earth is full of minerals. The point is that the cuckoo, by its call, is also thought to perform the same function, for it will show the whereabouts of a mine (Buckland). Cuckoo-spit is another name for Lady's Smock. Cuckoo-spit is the froth enveloping a pale green insect found on the flowers, and the name is sometimes transferred to the plants themselves. Few North country children would pick these flowers, for it was unlucky because the cuckoo had spat on them while flying over (Dyer. 1889).

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