Ensure you never pick the leaves of this poisonous plant by mistake, with our UK foraging guide to identify Lords and Ladies !
This article on how to identify lords and ladies could save your life! How? Because this plant is an ever-present danger for novice foragers everywhere in the UK.
For complete beginners I will take you through all its stand-out features, and its little-known characteristics, helping you to get to know and positively identify it, no matter where you find it. To keep you safe all year round, this website also shows you Britain’s other poisonous plants.
Interestingly, this plant has also been used as a food source. Only a few hundred years ago people were extracting the starch from the corm of the plant. Portland sago was the name commonly given to the product made on the island many years ago.
Quite how tbey managed to extract the abundant starch without the potentialy deadly calcium oxalate crystals, I’m still not completely sure. I did read many years ago that it was a hugely labororious and time consuming process, and surely one driven by a lack of other food, as well as economic factors.
If our an ancestors used and valued it as a food source then this begs a couple of questions…how little food did they have? Or maybe more importantly, what skills and knowledge did they have that we do not?
Until armageddon, I am happy to treat this plant as a poisonous plant that I leave alone. For that is what the raw plant is. All of it!
What’s in a name?
The generic part of the name Arum comes from the old Greek word ‘Aron’, the name which they called the plant.
l cannot seem to find any other explanation about the origins of the name.
The specific part – maculatum, comes from the word maculate, meaning spotted. Many, but not all of the specimens you will find, have spotted leaves.
Botanical description to identify Lords and Ladies.
Leaves: The leaves are broad, and arrow-shaped, with large, rounded basal lobes. These are always present. The plant is hairless.
Leaf veins are in a net pattern, with anastomising veins at the margins. As you can see, the veins join together forming a single vein running around the leaf about 5 or 6 mm from the edge. This feature helps to differentiate it from common sorrel, which also has arrow-shaped leaves and can be found sharing the same hedgerow or shady field margin.
When mature, a leaf will typically reach up to 20 cm long. In some places you will find carpets of leaves.
As mentioned previously, the leaves will often show dark spots or streaks.
Every now and again, especially in urban settings, you may see a very similar-looking, but variegated plant. This will be the garden escapee and close relative A.itallicum.
When first emerging, the leaves are rolled, and it is at this early stage when you could potentially mix it up with wild garlic (Allium ursinum).
Lords and Ladies will regularly be found in amongst patches of wild garlic. Please note that it is of no use, and simply not safe, to listen to online ‘know it all’s, who simply say “if a plant smells of garlic it must be garlic”!
This is because handling some garlic leaves will obviously mean your hands smell of garlic! It is important that you know what to look out for that sets them apart from each other. So, in order to further your plant identification skills and fast track your foraging, I have published the articles ‘how to identify plants in a day’, parts one and two.
Petioles: Grows to approximately 10 – 20 cm long, and sheathed at the base of the leaf.
Roots: Small turnip-shaped corms. Like other bulbs, these brown-skinned, starchy roots produce new leaves in winter and spring, then set flower and seed by summer. The plants are dormant from late summer to mid winter.
Stems: A single flower stem rises from the plant during April and May. Usually no more than 20 – 25 cm high.
Flowers: Botanically this type of inflorescence consists of a hooded spathe, and the reproductive organs of the phallic-shaped spadix. The spathe is pale yellow-green and sometimes spotted, while the oblong-shaped spadix is purple or yellow. You can see why the minds of country folk started calling it Lords and Ladies!
Flowering season: Field guides will tell you it can be found in bloom from April to June.
Fruits: Clusters of orange-red berries tightly held to the stem. These are one of the few plants my mum warned me about, as they are at so accessible and look so shiny and appealing. You will start to see lots of them from June.
Habitats: A natural lover of woodlands, copses and shady hedge-banks. As you can see from this map, the plant grows in all lowland areas of our islands up to around 425 metres, so you can learn how to identify Lords and Ladies pretty much anywhere in the UK.
Other notes: The plant is also full of saponins which can be toxic to us in large concentrations. Like other Arum family plants, this plant is pollinated by flies and midges.