Easily confused with : Rare Lords-and-Ladies but only if you happen to be in the deep south of England (or in a garden) where that is found.
Using another of its common aliases, Cuckoo Pint has no relation to : Cuckooflower (aka Lady's Smock) (Cardamine pratensis) [a plant with similar name]
And using yet another of its aliases, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, it has no relation to Jack-by-the-Hedge (aka Garlic Mustard) (Alliaria petiolata)
Arum plants contain the toxic glycosidic saponin
aronin, Coniine-like alkaloids, which depress the Central Nervous System. Other toxins include Cyanogenic Glycosides, and calcium oxalate raphides (raphides are sharp needle shaped crystals).
Starch extracted from the root was formerly used for starching laundry, but it contains the same acute irritant as does the acrid juice contained in all parts of the plant, so its use in this context was abandoned. Portland arrowroot (not the same as 'arrowroot' which is obtained from a plant called 'Arrowroot', a native of far away climes which is used in the making of arrowroot biscuits) and Portland sago were food preparations obtained from baking the powdered root, the toxic components presumably being destroyed by the baking process.
The attractive red berries are the most poisonous parts of this plant, but fatalities are rare due to the burning sensation in the mouth when the berries are eaten. This is followed by swelling of the tongue, salivation, strong convulsions, nausea, bloody vomiting and severe gastroenteritis. Higher amounts lead to arrhythmia and paralysis of the central nervous system.
Contact with the sap can cause severe dermatitis.
The spadix generates its own heat (rather unique in a plant) to vaporise amine molecules (which have a foetid odour) in order to attract certain flies known as 'Owl Midges' in the hood (spathe), which in trying to escape, pollinate the stigmas. The flies are imprisoned until the male flowers mature, when the spathe drops off revealing the berries. This detectable heat-generation process could be seen as un-likely, given the low metabolism of plants, but seems to be true of Lords-and-Ladies.
The 'i' in 'pint' in Cuckoo Pint is pronounced similar to the 'i' in mint, and not, as most assume, as in 'a pint of beer'. This pronunciation comes about because 'Cuckoo Pint' is derived from the old English cuccopintle meaning 'Cuckoo's Penis', which it apparently resembles. In a similar vein, some folk call it 'Naked Boys' or 'Willy Lily' although it does not belong to the Lily Family.
A Protogynous flower is the opposite of a Protandrous flower. In a Protogynous flower the stigma is receptive to pollen before the anthers open and release their pollen, during the interval the stigma becomes unresponsive to pollen. Thus self-fertilisation is again thwarted. Examples of flowers exhibiting protogyny include the flowers of
Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) is also protogynous but with a slightly different strategy. At first both male and female flowers deep within it are sterile. But then one day the female sexual organs deep within the spadix become active and they release an odour attracting the tiny Diptera flies which then become trapped by the expanding but still sterile male flowers in a ring above the female flowers at the bottom. On the second day the male flowers become active and allow the trapped flies to escape, and as they do so they unintentionally take sticky pollen grains with them. When they visit another Lords-and-Ladies flower they fertilise it with the pollen.
Oxalic Acid is the smallest di-carboxylic acid and about 3000 times stronger than Acetic Acid. Highly insoluble in water, it is present as crystals in many plants, including
Cuckoo Pint, which contains about 0.3% in the berries, but is present in other parts.
Oxalic Acid is usually present as extremely fine long and narrow crystals known as raphides, which are more dangerous because of their ability to pierce cells. Oxalic Acid is toxic. Crystals of one of the highly insoluble salts of Oxalic Acid called Calcium Oxalate are apt to accumulate in the kidneys as kidney stones.
Both Lords-and-Ladies and Italian Lords-and-Ladies contain a volatile components in the spadix,
IsoAmylAmine, which together have an odour reminiscent of mice urine.
The literature on the poisonous constituents of Cuckoo Pint is very sparse, and mainly dates back 50 years or more. Bearing this in mind, your Author has managed to track down several supposed constituents:
TYROSONE & TRIGLOCHIN
Triglochinin, a Cyanogenic Glycosides derived from oxidative cleavage of the ring in
Tyrosine, is present at up 100ppm in all parts of the plant. As such, it is one of the toxic components present in all parts but especially the berries. It is quick-acting and can cause a severe swelling action which may result in death.
Tyrosine itself is one of the natural 21 or 22 amino acids and plays an important role in photosynthesis in plants, acting as an electron-donor in the reduction of oxidized
chlorophyll. In accomplishing this feat, Tyrosine itself loses the hydrogen atom in the hydroxyl group attached to the phenyl group (far left). Tyrosine is also the precursor to the black skin pigment
There are many reports of Cuckoo Pint also containing un-named and un-identified Cyanogenic Glycosides (which release
prussic acid, HCN, when the leaves are damaged). One report suggests that that this Cyanogenic Glycoside is
Dhurrin (which is similar to Prunasin [but that lacks an extra -OH moiety] and which is found in several other plants, including Bracken). Scientific papers also report un-named
Saponins as being present. Note also the similarity to Triglocinin, another cyanogenic glycoside with a similar modus operandi.
A trace amount of
Nicotine is also present in the leaves, at a concentration of 0.7mg/kg, which is unlikely to cause problems. This is unusual, previously Nicotine was only known in plants belonging to the Nightshade Family (Solanaceae), and especially in the Genus Nicotinia (
Tobacco). Nicotine is a very addictive alkaloid, probably as dependence-forming as some of the narcotics such as heroin and cocaine. In low doses of up to 1mg it acts as a stimulant in mammals. It is enantiomeric, existing in two stereo-isometric forms, one dextro-rotatory, the other laevo-rotatory. Only The laevo-rotatory form is produced naturally. The dextro-rotatory form is only half as pharmacologically active as the laevo-rotatory form.
Reportedly smelling similar to the odour of mice urine these three amines were also found, in both this and Italian Lords-and-Ladies.
A CONIINE-TYPE ALKALOID
In many books and research papers mention is made of the plant containing a Coniine type alkaloid, but no one names it, apart from one source. It turns out that it contains
3-PropylPiperidine, which is an isomer of the extremely poisonous alkaloid Coniine, being 2-MethylPiperidine, shown alongside for comparison only, which is contained within Hemlock (Conium maculatum) (and which somewhat coincidentally shares the same specific epithet part of the scientific name, maculatum, which just means 'spotted').