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Plant of the Month | Lords and Ladies

Newton Road Cemetery June 2023 | Joan Stacey


Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum)


The ‘odd cuckoo-pint, like an apoplectic saint in a niche of malachite‘. So wrote Thomas Hardy in Far from the Madding Crowd (chapter22). This rather strange plant has attracted well over 100 colloquial nicknames, a record for our native flora. The prudish Victorians regarded it unfavourably, considering it to be lewd and dangerous. Some people even believed a girl could get pregnant simply by looking at it! In the Cemetery, it is mainly found under trees along the path on the west side. It belongs to the Araceae Family with ‘maculatum‘ referring to the spots on the dark green leaves even though you will notice not all the leaves do have spots.


Rings of male and female flowers cluster low down around the base of the spadix which is partially enclosed by a pale green spathe or leaf-like hood. After flowering in April and May, very bright orange berries are produced (see inset photo) Caution is needed as all parts of the plant are poisonous causing serious reactions and it contains calcium oxalate which can be poisonous to cats and dogs. It is one of the most common causes of plant poisoning seen in hospital emergency departments. There is no known antidote so airway management and copious fluids are used to save life and prevent kidney damage. In spite of this, many uses have been found for it in the past. On Portland, islanders used a complicated process to make Portland sago or Portland arrowroot and it was also used to make soup. It yielded a kind of flour which was made into a drink, known as Salop, which was a low-cost alternative to tea and coffee. Homoeopaths produced remedies to treat inflammation and ulcers of the mucous membranes, eye problems and even depression. NB. It is highly risky and inadvisable to self-treat as a proper medical diagnosis will mean that modern effective treatment can be prescribed. A useful type of laundry starch was prepared from the roots which was used way back in c1440 for the vestments at Syon Abbey and later for stiffening ruffs when these become popular. It can benefit certain animals, for example, thrushes and other birds will grub up and eat the roots in snowy seasons, while field mice and pheasants like to feed on the berries.


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