The arrival of the cuckoo in April remains a popular sign of spring, even for the majority of us now living in towns or cities who might not actually hear the call. The unmistakable sound of the cuckoo is embedded in our creative culture – in music, poetry and in the common names of some of the UK’s native wild flowers, all of which help us preserve a link with the natural world and the changing seasons.
Flora Londinensis, written by William Curtis and published in six volumes between 1777 – 1798 is an illustrated survey of all the wild plants that could be found within a ten mile radius of London. Curtis sheds some light on the reason why Lychnis flos-cuculi is known as the cuckoo flower observing that, ‘from the earliest ages’ people have made a connection between the flowering of certain plants and ‘the periodical return of birds of passage’.
Before the return of the seasons was exactly ascertained by Astronomy, these observations were of great consequence in pointing out stated times for the purposes of Agriculture; and still, in many a Cottage, the birds of passage and their corresponding flowers assist in regulating “The short, and simple Annals of the Poor.”
Curtis points out that ‘we have several other plants that, in different places, go by the name of Cuckow Flower’ including cardamine, arum, orchids and wood sorrel. He talks about a double form of the lychnis flower being cultivated in gardens.
Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of plantes (1597) contains many examples of local plant names. He confirms that cardamines are commonly known as Cuckow flowers, while noting that in Norfolk they are called Caunterburie bels and in Cheshire (his place of birth, in Nantwich), Ladie smockes.
Another cuckoo flower mentioned by Gerard is the common woodland plant Arum maculatum. He lists the plant’s common names:
The common Cockow pint is called in Latin Arum: in English Cockow pint and Cockow pintle, wake Robin, Priest’s pintle, Aron, Calfes foote, and Rampe, and of some Starch woort.
According to Wikipedia, ‘pint’ is a shortening of the word ‘pintle’, meaning penis, derived from the shape of the spadix.
In the eighteenth century it was understood that cuckoos left the country to overwinter in warmer places, but not known that they travelled as far as Africa. While we know more about the cuckoo’s migratory patterns now, fewer of us experience the cuckoo first hand, so may not know about the changing call of the cuckoo over the season. Gerard talks about the time in April and May when ‘the Cuckowe doth begin to sing her pleasant notes without stammering’. In his poem The Cuckoo John Clare also observes a loss of voice, but in summer:
When summer from the forest starts
Its melody with silence lies,
And, like a bird from foreign parts,
It cannot sing for all it tries.
‘Cuck cuck’ it cries and mocking boys
Crie ‘Cuck’ and then it stutters more
Till quick forgot its own sweet voice
It seems to know itself no more.
This alteration in the cuckoo’s call is described as a ‘change of tune’ in Jane Taylor’s poem, memorably and beautifully set to music by Benjamin Britten in his collection of twelve songs entitled Friday Afternoons. Do listen on the link below.
What do you do?
I open my bill;
I sing night and day;
I change my tune;
Far far I fly;
Away I must.”
Jane Taylor, 1783-1824
(images from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, unless otherwise stated)