What's in Flower - May
Lady’s smock and the Orange tip butterfly
Lady’s smock Cardamine pratensis loves a sunny April / May, and vice versa! It is one of the first of our meadow flowers to come out (pratensis, a recurring specific name for grassland plants, is actually Latin for meadow) and its very pale pink flowers grace even relatively intensive grassland across West Dorset. Another name for Lady’s smock is Cuckoo flower, presumably in association with its flowering time, though this could be said of many flowering plants of course! Red campion, Bluebell and Early purple orchid are known to some as cuckoo-flower as well, and another name for Pignut is cuckoo potato! But the story goes that Lady’s smock ‘hails the cuckoo’ or more prosaically, prompts ‘the old lady of the woods to let the cuckoo out of her basket’.
At Kingcombe Lady’s smock is revered as the food plant of the Orange tip butterfly Anthocharis cardamines, another spirit-lifting sentinel of early spring. Some say that the young leaves are a good substitute for cress in a salad, but the orange tip larva goes for developing seed pods, as long as no neighbouring eggs take its cannibalistic fancy! For this reason, the female Orange tip is usually careful to lay just one egg on each food plant - look for these fairly conspicuous eggs on the flower stalks of Lady’s smock; (the more orange the egg, the more mature it is). Only the male butterfly has the eye-catching orange wing tips and it is thought that these are a warning sign letting predators know that the species is not palatable owing to an accumulation of mustard oils in the body from another of the Orange tip’s food plants, Garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata.