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Saturday, July 16, 2011
RAGGED ROBIN - NOT JUST A PRETTY FLOWER: HISTORY AND USES OF CUCKOO FLOWER
RAGGED ROBIN, CUCKOO FLOWER, LYCHNIS FLOS-CUCULI
Ragged robins are native to the British Isles, Europe and western Asia, and love to grow in damp ground. They can be found growing in buttercup fields and along with Bugle, meadowsweet and marsh mallow. I loved to see them when I was very young because I had been told fairies made dresses from their ragged petals and this annoyed the goblins whose flowers they were. Apparently they are associated with goblins and evil spirits in some parts of the British Isles. I had thought that my grandfather was making up tales to amuse me.
They can grow to heights of 75 cms but they are more often about knee height. There are white ones as well as the pink ones, and they attract bees and butterflies, which feed on the nectar.
Writing in his Herball Gerard refers to them as Crowsfoot, says that they have no medicinal value, “but they serve, for garlands and crownes and to decke up gardens.” However, along with other Lychnis varieties they were, albeit unbeknownst to Gerard, used as a remedy for jaundice. Ragged Robins were also used along with Common or English ivy for common ailments such as stomach aches, toothache, headaches and muscle strains among other things, and were known as ‘magical’ herbs.
The Latin name, Lychnis comes from the Greek word, for lamp, and these flowers stand out against a green background, attracting both people and insects. Flos -cuculi means cuckoo flower, and the ragged robin is sometimes known by this name, as is Lady’s Smock, to which it is not related nor is it related to the Cuckoo pint. Its pink (or white) petals have ragged edges, and perhaps it gets the name robin from the red-breasted bird, or Robin Goodfellow or Puck a mischievous imp or goblin in British folklore (and Shakespeare). It is a member of the carnation family of plants, the Caryophyllaceae.
There are two superstitions surrounding ragged robin; the first is that bachelors would carry it in their pockets and if they didn’t die, but thrived, they believed this was a sign that they would be lucky in love. Young girls would give ragged robin plants the names of village boys and the flower that came out first bore the name of the boy the girl who had named the flower would marry.
In the Language of Flowers, the ragged robin is a symbol of ardour and wit.
The root contains saponins and has been used in the past as a soap substitute mainly for washing clothes. The flowers were also used, boiled in water and the water used to rinse hair after shampooing, to make it soft and fragrant.
It may not be the most beneficial plant, but it is a pretty sight in the countryside.