Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis), also known as lady’s smock or milkmaid, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family. It’s a common sight in meadows, damp grasslands, and alongside riverbanks and streams in the UK.
It usually blooms from April to June and can grow up to 50cm tall. It has delicate, pale purple, pink or white flowers, which have four petals each about 1.5cm in diameter. It has long and slender leaves with serrated edges.
Cuckoo flower is an excellent choice for a domestic garden, especially for those looking to attract wildlife. Its flowers provide nectar and pollen for several species of pollinators, while its leaves are used as a food plant for the caterpillars of the orange tip and green-veined white butterflies.
How to grow cuckoo flower
Grow cuckoo flower in moist soil in partial shade to full sun. Sow seeds in either spring or autumn and keep the soil consistently moist until the plant is established.
Where to grow cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower needs moist to wet loamy or sandy soils with a pH of between 5.5 and 7.5, and grows best in a position that gets some sun – particularly one with partial shade. In domestic gardens, it’s a popular choice for wildflower meadows and wetland areas, or it can be used in a woodland garden, along with other shade-loving plants such as ferns, hostas, and bleeding heart. Cuckoo flower is not invasive and will not take over your garden, so you can plant it in a range of locations without the threat of it taking over.
How to plant cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower can either be sown from seed or grown from young plants. The best time to sow seeds is in autumn, but they can also be sown in early spring. It’s best to sow them in a cold frame or greenhouse and transplant them to your desired location when they are big enough to handle. Alternatively, you can plant young plants in spring or autumn. Dig a hole that’s slightly deeper than the pot and plant the cuckoo flower so it’s at the same depth as it was in the pot. Water well after planting.
How to care for cuckoo flower
Once established, cuckoo flower is a relatively low-maintenance plant. Make sure you keep the soil consistently moist, especially during the flowering season. Watering in the morning or evening is ideal to prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. Fertilising is not necessary, but a light application of compost or organic matter in spring can help boost growth. Deadheading spent flowers can help encourage more blooms throughout the season.
How to prune cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower does not require regular pruning. You may want to cut the plant back to about 5cm above the ground after it has finished flowering. However, if you are growing cuckoo flower for wildlife, bear in mind that both the orange-tip and green-veined white butterflies overwinter as pupae on or near their foodplant, so it’s best to leave the plants intact so they can complete their lifecycle.
How to propagate cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower can be propagated through seeds or division. To propagate through seeds, collect ripe seed pods in autumn. Then either sow them in seed trays to transplant when large enough to handle, or scatter seed where you want it to grow.
To propagate through division, dig up an established plant in spring or autumn and gently separate the clumps of roots. Replant the divided clumps in a new location, water thoroughly, and watch them grow.
Pests and diseases
Cuckoo flower is a relatively hardy perennial plant that is not often troubled by pests or diseases.
Advice on buying cuckoo flower
- When buying cuckoo flower, it’s important to choose healthy, vigorous plants. If possible, choose plants that are just starting to flower, as this indicates that they are well-established and will be more likely to thrive in your garden
- It’s also a good idea to choose plants that are suited to the conditions in your garden – cuckoo flower needs moist soil and partial shade, so if your garden is particularly dry or sunny, you may need to consider growing something else
Where to buy cuckoo flower online
Cuckoo flower varieties
Cardamine pratensis white flowered – pure white flowers. H x S: 30 x 30cm
Cardamine pratensis ‘Flore Pleno’ – frilly, double flowers in shades of pink and white. H x S: 30 x 30cm