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What is a Cuckoo Flower Plant?

Beautiful light purple cuckoo flowers growing at the end of a flower stalk covered in delicate rain drops

Cardamine Pratensis

Cardamine pratensis is the scientific term for the more commonly know plant, the cuckoo flower. It gets this name because it blooms right around the same time that a cuckoo bird starts to sing in the early spring. It is the county flower of Cheshire!

You may have also heard it under the name of the lady’s smock flower, because of its flower shape, or milkmaids flower for the same reason. It is also called the mayflower because of the time of year that the plant blooms.

This flowering plant species is a member of the brassicaeae family, which is also home to numerous edible plants like broccoli, cauliflower, and mustard. It is native throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.

Cardamine pratensis is wonderfully easy to grow, and would make a very lovely addition to your edible plant garden. If you’re looking for something more showy or spreading or vining or what-have-you, head on over to our Amazing List of Flowering Plants where you will surely find the perfect new member for your precious green space.

Gazing at a cluster of very light violet cuckoo flowers with 4 veined petals and yellow anthers against blurred green background

Related: White Flowers | Sun-Loving Flowers | Water-Loving Flowers | Shade-Loving Flowers | Types of Flowers | Types of Flowers by Color | Types of Flowers by Alphabet | Types of Flower Colors

Several white cuckoo flowers growing at the ends of red flower stalks with a blurred green background

What do Cuckoo Flowers Look Like?


Cuckoo flowers are borne as flower spikes that are between 5 and 10 inches in length. These loose clusters of light violet or white flowers bloom at the end of a slender leaf stalk at the tip of a flower stem.

Each individual flower is comprised of 4 petals that are less than an inch in diameter. The entire flower is less than 1/2 an inch across, with rounded petals with slightly notched tips. They close up at night time or if there is due to be a heavy rainfall.

Petals are usually a pale lilac, pale pink, and sometimes white color. The centre of the flowers contain 6 pale yellow anthers. Flower buds usually bloom from April through June or into autumn.

Flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning that they possess both male reproductive characteristics and female reproductive characteristics. They are pollinated by bees, flies, moths, and butterflies.

A pollinated flower will produce fruit in the form a slender pod with a short beak at the tip. It is about an inch in length and contains several seeds.

Super close up shot of light pink cuckoo flower with veined petals and bright yellow anthers


Cuckoo flowers have two different leaf formations. They have broad root leaves that grow in the form a loose rosette. The basal leaves around between 1 and 3 inches in length and are a rounded kidney shape.

The stem leaves are pinnately compound and are comprised of between 3 and 15 small leaflets that are only 1cm in length. The smallest rounded leaflets are found at the top of the stem, and they steadily grow larger as the extend downwards.

Growth Pattern

The cuckoo flower is a herbaceous perennial plant that usually grow to be between 10 and 20 inches in height. They have slim stems with both basal rosette leaves and stem leaves. Flower spikes are borne on slender stalks at the tip of stems.

Side view of cuckoo flower plant with tall stem, thin leaves, and light purple flowers growing at ends of stem

Where do Cuckoo Flowers Grow?

Cuckoo flowers are a native plant throughout the British Isles, though they have become naturalized in the temperated regions of Ireland, western Asia, North America, and the rest of Europe as well.

There are both new world populations and old world populations growing as different varieties throughout these regions. The can exist in USDA growing zones 3 through 9.

The natural habitat of cuckoo flowers is cool and wet sites. This can be anything from a forested bog, pond, cedar swamp, shaded woodlands, grassy wet meadows, riverbanks, ditches, along streams, lakes, and road verges.

Wild cuckoo flower patch growing next to shaded lakeside with blooming flowers

How do you Propagate a Cuckoo Flower?

There are one of 2 ways to propagate a cuckoo flower; either by sowing seed or by vegetative propagation. If you’re purchasing cuckoo flower seed from a nursery, follow the same steps we’re about to go over for vegetative propagation.

Cuckoo flower seeds are extremely small and difficult to collect, and collecting your own seeds can be frustrating. The best way to propagate your own plant is by vegetative propagation.

First step to planting your own cuckoo plant is by waiting for the right time of year. It is best to transplant them outdoors in April.

Start your propagation process by filling a seed tray with moist compost. Place a cuckoo flower leaf into each cell flat against the compost. Ensure it is well pressed into the surface.

Within 3-4 days, small white roots will start to appear on the underside of the leaf. Ensure compost is still moist. Within 2 weeks leaves will have transformed into small seedlings. At this stage, they can be transplanted into a pot or directly into the ground.

When choosing a spot in your garden, ensure it is an area with partial to full shade as young plants are rather sensitive to full sun conditions.

Sunlight beaming down at exploding blooms of light purple cuckoo flowers growing at the ends of bright green stems

What are the Growing Conditions of a Cuckoo Flower?

Soil Type

Cuckoo flowers can tolerate almost any soil type as long as it is well drained. They perform best when they grow close to water, and so having earth with proper irrigation will ensure a happy plant. Just remember, soil should always be moist!

Sun Exposure

Young plants prefer to exist in partial shade conditions, whereas well established plants can handle full sun exposure. Keep this is mind when propagating your plant, and consider keeping them indoors until they are a little bit older if you have a very sunny property.

Water Level

The most important growing requirement of a cuckoo plant is its moisture level. They are not tolerant to drought and soil must remain moist at all times. Watering a cuckoo plant every 2-3 days in dry seasons will help keep it happy.

Looking ip at the tops of cuckoo flower plant stems through blades of grass at light pink flowers


A cuckoo flower meadow definitely prefers to live at cooler latitudes rather than in hot regions. They perform best when growing close to water, and will be very unhappy in a dry and hot site. They prefer to exist in USDA growing zones 3 through 9.


Cuckoo flowers will benefit from a general purpose fertilizer that can be given a couple of times during their growing season. If they are growing in soil that is enriched with compost, fertilizer is not entirely necessary, though it may encourage a longer blooming season.


There is no pruning required for a cuckoo flower as they natural grow in an attractive and neat shape. They are perennials, and do not need to be deadheaded either.


The most important thing to remember about the cuckoo flower is that it requires to exist in very moist conditions. They are intolerant to drought.

Stunning patch of cuckoo flower plants with long green stems and light pink and purple flower blossoms pointed at the sun

How are Cuckoo Flower Plants Used?

Ornamental Plant

Cuckoo flower have a primary place in small gardens all over Europe, western Asia, and North America. This easy to care for plant bring beautiful blooms, edible foliage, and pollinators to green spaces.

Damp meadows of cuckoo flowers are a very important food plant for the orange tip butterfly, and are a very important source of nectar for beneficial insects like different bee species, wasps, moths, and butterflies.

Old lore states that the cuckoo wild flower is sacred to fairies as well, and they they must be left outdoors for fairies to be able to take a rest on their soft petals. It is considered unlucky to cut a fairy flower and bring them indoors.

Closed purple flower buds of the cuckoo flower plant being visited by the orange tip butterfly

Edible Plant

Both the leaves and flowers of the cuckoo plant are edible. The leaves from young shoots can be eaten either raw or cooked, and they are very rich in vitamin C and minerals as well.

Traditionally, cuckoo wildflower foliage was an important component of a fresh spring salad, with leaves similarly flavored to watercress or large bittercress, and edible flowers as a garnish.

Medicinal Plant

And if all of that weren’t enticing enough, cuckoo flower have high medicinal value as well! Crushed leaves can be used to treat skin irritation, or made into a tea to help alleviate asthma. Leaves also have stimulant properties and are helpful with digestion.

Cut flowers of the cuckoo flower plant laying on a table next to a an empty cup for medicinal tea