How to Plant & Grow Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis)

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cuckoo flower with purple flowers
Cuckoo flower is well-loved in its native lands, but is declining due to wetland loss.

Cardamine pratensis, more commonly known as cuckoo flower, lady’s smock, mayflower, or milk maid, is a gorgeous mustard plant within the family Brassicaceae, along with other mustard species. This delicate, light purple-pink flowering plant is native to Europe and western Asia and grows very well in open countryside habitat. This plant can grow and spread to cover entire hills and fields, giving them a beautiful blanket of color! C. pratensis has also been introduced to North America, and has even become naturalized in the United States and Canada over the years.

In Europe, there is a little bit of old folklore featuring this little plant. Stories tell of cuckoo flowers as being sacred to fairies, and thus unlucky to bring indoors. It is only meant to be grown and appreciated outside in nature.

The cuckoo flower is not commonly used in herbalism, but making the leaves into a tea has been used to remedy indigestion and promote appetite. The leaves of C. pratensis have also been known to have diuretic and stimulant properties. Ingesting them can aid in the treatment of chronic skin problems and even asthma. If you are looking to use this plant to remedy any health issue you are experiencing, it is best practice to harvest the leaves in the springtime when they are newly growing, and to use them while they are fresh.

Cuckoo flowers are pretty easy to identify, and it’s safe to say that they usually stand out! They typically grow to be about 30cm – 50cm in height, and have short-stalked pinnate leaves. The flowers themselves have narrow stems and each of the four petals are about 1cm – 2cm in width. They often have delicate, darker purple veins running through the petals. They boast yellow anthers, and tend to grow in abundance. The flowers are a lovely light pinkish/ purple color- they close up at night time, but open up each morning at dawn to be enjoyed by insects, wildlife, and humans alike!

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Cuckoo Flower

an orange tip butterfly on cuckoo flower
The orange tip butterfly relies on cuckoo flower for much of its food both as a caterpillar and as an adult. Photo by Mark Seton / CC BY-NC 2.0

Cardamine pratensis is an important source of food for the orange-tip butterfly  (Anthocharis cardamines) and the green-veined white butterfly (Pieris napi). These butterflies feed on Cardamine pratensis during the larval stage, and females will often deposit their eggs straight onto the underside of the cuckoo flower leaves to hatch and eat away. These butterflies are important pollinator species, and their reliance on C. pratensis gives the plant an important ecological role.

Oftentimes, gardeners will intentionally add Cardamine pratensis to their plant collection just for the sake of attracting these attractive and helpful butterfly species! Once the butterflies have developed into the adult stage, they will pollinate the flowers. 

The cuckoo flower also tends to attract wildlife species, including many species of bees, butterflies, moths, and birds. The leaves and flowers are edible and attractive to herbivorous species, most particularly caterpillars. Many mammal species do not prefer the leaves, as they have a peppery taste.

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Cuckoo Flower Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous Perennial
USDA 3 – 7
Full sun to partial shade
Light purple, pink
May – June (Spring to Summer)
Height 0.5 meters, spread 0.5 meters
Just below soil surface
pH 5.1 – 7.8

Cuckoo Flower Growth, Hardiness & Climate

cardamine pratensis growing on a pond edge with white and pink flowers
Cuckoo flower prefers rich soils that are either moist or saturated with water. Photo by Sten Porse, CC BY-SA 3.0

Cuckoo flowers grow optimally in moist or wet soils that are well-drained and rich in organic material and nutrients. While they prefer soil that is more on the acidic side, they are hardy and can grow in a wide range of pH levels. They grow best in summer climates with cooler temperatures and prefer to be partially shaded. That being said, they can still thrive in full-sun conditions especially if it isn’t a brutally hot climate. Do note that you may need to provide more water in full-sun environments.

If you are looking for a beautiful plant to have around your backyard pond that is easy to maintain and will benefit the natural environment, then Cardamine pratensis might be just the plant you are looking for. C. pratensis makes a great addition for gardens, fields, or backyard ponds. They exhibit some amount of phenotypic plasticity, allowing them to survive in a range of environmental conditions.

How to Plant Cuckoo Flower In Ponds

how to plant cuckoo flower cardamine pratensis
When starting from seed, it’s easiet to plant cuckoo flower in a pot and then transplant once mature.

If you are interested in adding the attractive and beneficial cuckoo flower to your garden or pond edge, the best time to sow the seeds is in the late fall or springtime. The seeds will germinate just below the surface of the soil, and require light watering. If you choose to plant multiple individuals, you should leave at least a foot of space (0.3 meters) between plants. It is best if the soil is naturally and consistently moist or marshy.

Your C. pratensis plant will grow best in well-drained, moist soil, but can also grow well in clay or sand. While the seedlings will need to be watered on a regular basis, mature plants do not need as much attention – especially if the soil is naturally moist, or they’re planted marginally in your pond. After your C. pratensis has grown and matured over a few years, it can be divided and replanted to produce healthier, new growth.

Because the seeds of the cuckoo flower can be very small and difficult to collect, it may be best practice to grow new plants via vegetative propagation rather than to sow from seed. To do this, you will just need to have a couple of supplies on hand – a seed tray and some moist compost will do the trick. Collect a few cuckoo flower leaves from a mature individual, and press the leaves into the top of the nutrient-rich compost. Check on your leaves after a few days, and hopefully you will notice some tiny, white-colored roots beginning to grow on the underside! Once the leaves begin to grow into independent individuals, they can be transplanted into individual pots and moved outdoors soon thereafter. To help this process, you can even dip the leaves in a bit of rooting hormone.

How to Care For Cuckoo Flower

how to care for cuckoo flower
Cuckoo flower requires remarkably little care – just makes sure it has enough moisture!

When first planting cuckoo flowers in your garden or at your pond edge, it is important to remember to water the seedlings on a regular basis. If they are growing in a marshy habitat or at the edge of a pond, then you probably don’t even need to think about watering them! They are hardy plants that are very straightforward and simple to take care of.

C. pratensis is not known to have any serious issues regarding diseases or pests. It is a very robust species of plant, but may experience plant mildew or rust at some point in time. Aphids may also impact the growth of cuckoo flowers, and weevils and slugs have been known to have some negative impact on survivorship. Luckily, while these pests are annoyances, none of these biological issues will lead to the full demise of your beloved plants.

How to Winter Cuckoo Flower

Because cuckoo flowers are inexpensive and readily available at home and garden centers, it is OK to simply let your plants brave the winter elements and leave them to their own devices. While there is not much information online about overwintering this species, they will likely survive winter if they are growing in a damp environment.

Is Cuckoo Flower Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

While the cuckoo flower is not native to North America where it grows widely, it has become naturalized across many states and is not known to cause serious problems in areas where it is found widely.

C. pratensis is not toxic to humans or wildlife, and in fact some people enjoy consuming it! It has a similar flavor profile to watercress, so it can be used in many of the same ways. Trim your C. pratensis and use it as a garnish, or toss it into a salad to add an interesting new flavor.

Is Cuckoo Flower Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

While other mustard plants in the Brassicaceae family are better suited for eating, Cardamine pratensis is still very much edible. Some people that grow it will utilize it as a substitute for watercress in certain dishes.

There is no information available as to whether or not fish will eat cuckoo flowers, but this plant species can surely benefit fish indirectly, through the other ecosystem services it provides. As mentioned before, at least a couple of different butterfly species depend on C. pratensis as a food source. Growing this plant in your garden or alongside your pond will attract insects to your property. Fish depend on a variety of insects as a dietary staple, so growing cuckoo flowers is sure to attract food sources for your beloved pond fish!

Where to Buy Cuckoo Flower & Seeds? (UK & US)

Within its native range of Europe and portions of Asia, cuckoo flower is fairly easily to obtain from many plant nurseries. In North America and other regions, however, it’s often easiest to order this plant online. Do keep in mind that it’s always best to utilize plants native to your particular region; 

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