Not only did yesterday’s walk bring me the amazing sighting of a Mandarin duck, it also delighted me with this drop of golden sunlight come to earth, my first Lesser celandine flower of 2020.
It seems that everywhere I walk at the moment there’s Cuckooflower. With its penchant for damp soggy ground, it can be found sprinkled amongst the reeds at the edge of Cardiff Bay wetlands, underlining the willow scrub along the edges of the River Taff, accentuating the lines of a drying drain at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park. And it’s such a pretty little thing, with its pale lilac flowers sitting high on an upright stalk, all the better for the bees and butterflies to find them.
Its scientific name is Cardamine pratensis and, if you don’t know it as Cuckooflower (it flowers at the time the cuckoos return to Britain), then you may know it by its other popular names, Milkmaid and Lady’s smock. Milkmaid is the older name, possibly a reference to its feminine colour and blousy shape when the flowers are first opening and I read, in an article in the Darlington & Stockton Times 23 June 2006, that
‘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.’
Luckily, I prefer to leave wildflowers where they are for everyone to enjoy so haven’t picked any, though I’m now almost tempted, just to see what happens … almost.
Blue is not a colour we see often in flowers – I can only think of a few blue-flowering plants: delphiniums, agapanthus, hydrangeas, cornflowers, bluebells of course, and today’s plant, the Grape hyacinth (Muscari sp.). The scarcity of blue flowers is due to plants having no true blue pigment so they must perform a degree of chemical manipulation to make the colour. According to author David Lee, who wrote Nature’s Palette: The science of plant color (University of Chicago Press, 2010), ‘Plants tweak, or modify, [their] red anthocyanin pigments to make blue flowers. They do this through a variety of modifications involving pH shifts and mixing of pigments, molecules and ions.’
That knowledge makes me appreciate even more the delicate Grape hyacinths that are currently adorning many of my neighbours’ gardens and blooming prolifically at the local cemetery. They are probably Muscari armenaicum – muscari comes from the Greek muschos, referring to their musky scent, and armenaicum is a clue to their area of origin, Armenia and the meadows and woodlands of the eastern Mediterranean right through to the Caucasus. The Grape hyacinth was first cultivated in European gardens in the 1870s but spreads freely and rapidly so has become naturalised in Britain, much of Europe and North America.
Though Penarth is a wonderfully historic Victorian seaside town, with lovely parks, an iconic pier and grand buildings, its station is nothing to write home about. The original stone-built station buildings were demolished in the 1980s and replaced with a functional but ugly brick structure. So, it’s not one of those picturesque stations with hanging baskets full of summer flowers but it does have one redeeming feature. The scruffy and uncared-for dirt bank alongside the platform is currently home to a delightful display of Spring blooms. So, while the other morning commuters spend their waiting time scrolling through the latest social media happenings on their smartphones, completely oblivious to their surroundings, I enjoy the flowers. I hope you do too!