The damp and burgeoning hedgerows yield many plants at this time of year that have been hidden away since last Autumn. One of the most striking is Arum maculatum, or as I know it, the Cuckoo Pint.
Like many of my first contacts with the countryside, these plants remind of me of springtime in Cornwall as a child, their unusual shapes popping up not long after the primroses in the tall Cornish banks and woods. Now I find it in the lanes close to my home in Hertfordshire.
First, purple-spotted leaves appear in April and early May, followed by the upright spadix, half-cloaked in a green spathe which leads the way down to the male and female flowers that ring its base. Just above the flowers a ring of hairs form an insect trap that attracts midges with a faecal odour. Trapped over night they have plenty of time to cover themselves in pollen before being released again to pollinate another Arum by the same process.
In Autumn, the pollinated plant produces a cluster of poisonous, scarlet berries, before the plant dissolves with the winter frosts back into the ground to await the warmth of the following spring.
Such a striking plant not surprisingly has a myriad of country names including Wild arum, Lords and ladies, Devils and Angels, Cows and Bulls, Cuckoo-Pint, Adam and Eve, Bobbins, Naked Boys, Starch-Root and Wake Robin. Unsurprisingly, many of these names link to the phallic nature of the plant but Starch-Root refers to other properties. Its root tube can be large and as the common name suggests, stores starch.
Located up to 40cm below ground, the root is edible when roasted well and was once gathered and traded under the name of Portland sago. Before the introduction of tea and coffee it was a drink popular with country people and the working classes called salop or salep, which was most typically made from orchid bulbs. Incorrect preparation can leave the concoction highly toxic so extreme care should be taken in preparation.