Top 10 Facts: Lords and Ladies

Unwelcome guests. In Theatrum Botanicum, published in 1629 by John Parkinson, the author lists two recipes for Wild Arum (otherwise known as Lords and Ladies), suggesting that small pieces of the root can be mixed with lettuce and endive and that the dried root should be sprinkled, sparingly, over meat. He recommends these recipes for the unbidden unwelcome guest to man’s table because it will so burn and prickle his mouth that he will not be able to eat one bit more or scarce speak for pain. (source)

Don’t overdo it. Many members of the Arum family, including this variety, are known to be mildly toxic due to the oxalates contained in various parts of the plant. These fine crystals can irritate the skin, mouth, tongue, and throat, resulting in throat swelling, breathing difficulties, burning pain, and a stomach upset; while consumption of the plants appealing red fruit can be especially dangerous – resulting in a tingling sensation in the mouth moments after eating it and later, poisoning. Thankfully, the acrid taste of the Arum fruit means that the large quantities required to do serious harm are seldom eaten.

Notable incidents.  During a four year period between 1996 and 1999, there were 23 hospital visits as a result of Arum poisoning; though none of these resulted in serious harm. During this time, a young child who consumed the fruits of the plant was given a block of salt to eat so to ensure she vomited them up – all she remembers now is the awful taste of the salt. In a similar case, a young woman who consumed a leaf from Wild Arum was treated for a serious burning sensation in her mouth which lasted for a number of days. There have been no recorded fatalities from the species during modern times.

Only for the brave. An account from Dioscorides written in the first century AD suggests that the leaves of Wild Arum are excellent eaten as a cooked vegetable (unadvisable). Throughout history, however, it was the tuberous root of the plant that was most commonly eaten due to its high starch content (think of a poisonous potato). The tubers of Arum can be dried, heated and ground into a fine substance historically known as Portland Powder and used as a treatment for gout. This process gets rid of the roots aridity and toxic sap; with the final product known to be both a diuretic and a stimulant.

The height of fashion. Another name for Wild Arum is Starchwort, derived from the plant’s starchy tubers used during Elizabethan times to bind the decorative cuffs and ruffs that were fashionable during the Renaissance. It is said that the hands of poor laundresses who regularly worked with the root were often chapped and blistered because of it. Additionally, powered Arum root was one of the key ingredients of Cyprus Powder, used by Parisian ladies as a cosmetic treatment to whiten the skin. It did, however, have to be washed copiously so to avoid any irritation. (Source)

Arum_maculatum_03_ies

Wild Arrum, By Frank Vincentz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3195268

Indecent Appeal. Many of Wild Arums common names derive from the similarities between the spathe and spadix of the plant and male and female human genitalia. Rural people in England claim that the name of the plant is really Cuckoo’s Pintle, meaning Cuckoo’s Penis, and it was believed in 1930’s Dorset that if a young girl touched the plant they would soon fall pregnant. It has been suggested that this particular myth stems from a reference in John Lyly’s 1601 play, Love Metamorphosis.

Ingenious reproduction. Arum flowers sport a ring of hairs which serve to trap flying insects, particularly Owl-Midges, attracted to the flower by its unpleasant, faecal odour and a temperature up to 15°C warmer than the air around it. Once trapped, visiting insects are dusted with pollen before escaping and transferring their load to female flowers elsewhere.

Unpalatable to (most) animals. The leaves of Wild Arum, which give off a disagreeable odour when bruised, have been found to be unpalatable to grazing animals; while pigs that have consumed fresh Arum tubers have suffered mild cases of poisoning. Gilbert White, however, suggests that during severe bouts of snowy weather that the roots of Arum are scratched up and consumed by a variety of thrush species, and that the berries are regularly eaten by several species of bird – particularly by pheasants. (Source)

Religious significance. Wild Arum has been labelled as the Holy Grail of the Hedgerow due to the suggestion that the flower grew under the cross of Christ, catching some of his blood as he was crucified. Elsewhere, the nuns residing at Syon Abbey during 1440 used the starch from Arum root to bind altar cloths and other church linens, later imposing rules which ensured communion linen could only be made this way. (Source)

Repackaged. The Victorians were not fond of the sexual connotations associated with Wild Arum and tried to promulgate the name Our Lord and Our Lady in its place. This was based on the suggestion that the spathe of the plant represented the Virgin Mary using her cloak to shield the infant Jesus, himself represented by the spadix. This rebranding of Wild Arum was helped along by a game played by English children to see which flower bloomed first in Spring, the Lord or the Lady, differentiated by the colour of the stamens.

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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