Welsh, Pidyn, or Pidogyn y gog, Cala'r gethlydd. - Irish, Clovas a Gachir. - French, Chou poivre, Pain de lievre, Pied de veau. - German, Zehr-wurzel, or Zehrend-wurzel-kraut. - Italian, Giara. - Arab, Kolkas.
Aroidece. Arinece. Arum.
This is the "lords and ladies" of country children, who pull away the large enveloping spathe of the blossom, and extract the brightly-coloured and beautifully formed pistil, determining by some slightly indicated varieties of its colour, whether it shall be called a "lord" or a "lady," for on the relative proportions in the numbers of each, found by each child during the spring, is to depend his good fortune during the remainder of the year; and there is a German superstition regarding the same plant, that when a young man goes to a dance, if he puts a bit of arum into his shoe, saying:-
"I place you in my shoe; Let all young girls be drawn to you," he will secure to himself any partner or partners for whom he may wish, even though the presence of more fascinating rivals might otherwise have deprived him of so enviable a lot.
The reverent feeling of our own peasants towards the plant is recorded by Mrs. Hemans, who says, in speaking of the arum:-
* * " These deep, unwrought marks,
The villagers will tell thee (and with voice Lowered, in his true heart's reverent earnestness) Are the flower's portion from th' atoning blood On Calvary shed. Beneath the cross it grew; And in the vase-like hollow of its leaf, Catching from that dread shower of agony A few mysterious drops, transmitted thus Unto the groves and hills their healing stains A heritage - for storm or vernal winds Never to waft away".
"Many a sign Of the great sacrifice, which won us Heaven, The woodman and the mountaineer can trace On rock, on herb, on flower, and be it so! They do not wisely, that, with hurried hand, Would pluck these salutary fancies forth From their strong soil within the peasant's breast, And scatter them - far, far, too fast - away As worthless weeds. Oh, little do we know When they have soothed, when saved! "
Nor is it very extraordinary that superstitions should be attached to a plant of so very singular an appearance, and so totally unlike the generality of flowers. The common arum maculatum is our only British species, which, though somewhat rare in Scotland abounds in England in moist hedgerows, and open, yet shady woods, as well as in the completely different localities of the dry and sunburnt soils of the Holmes in the Bristol Channel, and on Portland Isle; in both which places it is extensively collected as an article of commerce. Its roots form the salep of our older cookery-books; and serve as one of the more harmless ingredients used for adulterating arrow-root; to which it bears a close resemblance; being, like the arrow-root (maranta esculenta) and its cogeners Taro (A. escu-lenta), and the celebrated Egyptian arum (A. coloca-sia), of an acrimonious and even poisonous nature, so that a slice of the root applied to the skin, in a fresh state, instantly raises a blister. This property is however completely destroyed either by drying, by the application of heat, or by maceration in water, when a simple farinaceous, or starchy substance remains, which is tasteless and perfectly wholesome:- a peculiarity, and a process, which appear to have been early discovered, and applied to plants of a similar nature by the rudest and least civilized people, as the lowest tribes of negroes, and Papuans, the South-sea Islanders, etc.
Medicinally, the arum was formally employed in its fresh state, as a powerful stimulant, though, as it neither imparts its acrimonous principle to water, nor spirit, it was necessary to extract the juice of the plant, and administer it pure; it was used both externally and internally, and considered invaluable in stimulating not only the languid tone of a weakened digestion, but also the whole system of circulation. It was also considered a cure for rheumatism, and intermittent fevers, and the German nurses appear to imply its use in consumption. But it is now, happily, like many other virulent medicines discontinued; having, perhaps, lost much of its fame through the incalculable harm done by the once much vaunted "Portland powder," a so-called specific for gout, of which this plant formed the basis. It is still much used in Paris as a cosmetic under the title of poudre de Cypre, and the leaves, blossom, etc, contain a saponaceous principle in so large a quantity that cottage "housewives" frequently use it for washing linen, blankets, etc. Very large quantities of the root are annually gathered, and supplied to dealers for the manufacture of the finer kinds of starch.
Hence one of the old English names of the plant is "starch-wort." Dioscorides says that the leaves dried and boiled form an excellent food; and Wedelius, as quoted by Dr. Withering, supposes this to have been the herb on which, under the name of chara, the soldiers of Caesar subsisted when encamped at Dyr-rachium. A curious belief is recorded by AElian, Aristotle, and others, that when bears were nearly starved from hybernating with no nourishment save that obtained by "sucking their paws," they were, in the spring, completely and suddenly restored by eating this plant.
Common Cuckoo-Pint. - Arum maculatum.
The arum is called by Pliny aris and aron, the last of which appears to have formerly been the usual mode of writing the name in English. He attributes to it an Egyptian origin. A great deal of ingenuity has been expended by modern writers to account for the old English names of "wake-robin," and "cuckoo-pint," and the last has been attributed to some fancied notion that the spathed blossom might hold "about a pint of liquid," or to the rather more rational idea, that the drop of moisture which lies in its depths, and to which we have already alluded, might furnish the cuckoo with a reservoir from whence to quench her thirst: ideas which, though sufficiently matter-of-fact, do not appear at all to partake of the spirit of the age in which the names were bestowed. Yet I can but offer with hesitation the suggestion, that as the British name pidyn y gog signifies the point (spear) of the cuckoo, or pidogyn y gog, the poignard of the cuckoo, or cala'r gethlydd, the pointed-reed, or staff of the cuckoo, it is just possible that the English term may have been a literal translation of the first name, which may gradually have been corrupted from cuckoo's point or dart, to cuckoo's pint If there be any foundation for this idea the name would, of course, refer not to the large spathe, which forms the body of the flower, but to the long and prettily-coloured spadix, which shoots up in the centre of the spathe.
I am, however, well aware that there is no ground so dangerous as that of etymological coincidence.
The arum is one of those plants which exhibits, in a very marked degree, the singular and most interesting phenomenon of vegetable evolution of heat, and this so strikingly, that the heat existing in the centre, or bottom of the spathe, for several hours after its first expansion, actually imparts a sensible heat to the blossom, which may be felt by placing the hand upon it, and which, from the form of the blossom, may be very satisfactorily tested with the thermometer.