With conspicuous orange-red berries in autumn, lords-and-ladies is a valuable perennial for shady areas. However, as it spreads easily, it can become too abundant in gardens. Here we help you decide whether to keep or remove it from your garden.

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Quick facts

  • The botanical name for lords-and-ladies is Arum maculatum; it is also commonly known as cuckoo pint
  • A UK native, it is found throughout the country at woodland edges, along hedgerows and on uncultivated ground
  • Its bright orange-red berries are loved by woodland birds like blackbirds and thrushes
  • Plants self-seed readily and can grow from fragments of the underground tubers
  • It is most likely to become a nuisance in gardens where the soil is moist and fertile
  • All parts of the plant are poisonous and can irritate your skin

What does lords-and-ladies look like?

Lords-and-ladies is a short perennial, reaching up to around 45cm tall. It grows from white, horizontal, underground tubers. In early spring, large, arrow-shaped, bright green leaves (sometimes with black blotches) appear. These are followed, in April and May, by conspicuous hooded flower structures. The hood (spathe) is yellowish-green with a purple rim and variable purple streaks and spots. It partially wraps around a short, club-shaped spike (the spadix) which ripens from pale greenish-yellow to purple-brown.  

Leaves and spathes wither by mid-summer, but the spadix remains, growing taller and developing into a head of numerous bright orange-red berries in early autumn.

The Italian arum (A. italicum) and its widely grown

cultivar ‘Marmoratum’ look very similar to lords-and-ladies, but have marbled, white-veined leaves. Although often deliberately planted in gardens as an ornamental, these plants can also spread.

Did you know?

The purpose of the elaborate flower structure is to attract pollinating insects, particularly small flies called owl midges. Once ripe, the spadix warms up, by as much as 15°C, and emits a cowpat-like smell. Flies, landing on the spathe, fall down into a chamber at its base and are trapped there by downward-pointing hairs until they have pollinated the tiny flowers within.

Is lords-and-ladies a weed?

Lords-and-ladies is a native wildflower, found throughout Britain in woodland, hedgerows and ditches. Although not often grown as an ornamental in gardens, it is nonetheless a valuable perennial for shady borders and a good wildlife plant, with its autumn berries loved by birds like blackbirds and thrushes.

Blackbirds love the berries of lords-and-ladies
A half-eaten head of berries
However, as it self-seeds readily and can be difficult to control, lords-and-ladies can become a weed for gardeners, particularly when it appears among other plants in well-tended borders.

What is a weed?

The term ‘weed’ describes a plant that is growing where it isn’t wanted. Weeds usually thrive in average garden conditions, reproducing and spreading easily. It is up to you to decide what you call a weed and what you choose to retain or remove.

Frequently asked questions about controlling lords-and-ladies

Here are our answers to your most common questions about dealing with lords-and-ladies:   

How invasive is lords-and-ladies? 

Lords-and-ladies self-seeds readily, so if berries are left to ripen, you’ll see a few extra popping up the following year. As birds also spread the berries, new plants may appear well away from the parent plant. This is good news if you’re hoping to grow them as ground cover in a shady bed or along a bank, but not so welcome in well-tended areas of the garden.  

As its tubers are able to regenerate from small pieces, care needs to be taken when tackling and disposing of unwanted plants, to avoid unintentionally spreading them around the garden in soil or home compost.

Do I need to get rid of lords-and-ladies? 

No – allowing lords-and-ladies to grow in a wildlife patch or low-maintenance area is a great way of boosting the biodiversity of your garden. And, as this plant grows happily in deep shade and on steep banks, leaving it to grow in the ‘trickier’ parts of your garden allows you to enjoy its attractive flowers and berries while benefitting from some springtime ground cover.  

It is, however, a good idea to control the spread of lords-and-ladies, by deadheading or digging-out some of the plants, so it doesn’t get out of hand. Early removal of seedlings in cultivated beds will stop them becoming established where they aren’t wanted.  

As it is a poisonous plant with bright berries, you may wish to get rid of lords-and-ladies if there is a risk that children or pets may eat some. Cutting off the berries wearing gloves is also an option to reduce the risk and keep the plant.

What is the easiest way to kill lords-and-ladies? 

Removing individual plants and small, isolated clumps is reasonably easy. Tackling large clumps or plants growing within a densely-planted bed can be difficult, taking patience and persistence. Make sure to wear gloves when handling any part of this plant as it can irritate your skin.  

If you have lords-and-ladies growing where it isn’t wanted, these are the best options for removing it:

  • Hoe off seedlings – a good option if they appear among other plants in a border and digging them out isn’t feasible. Hoeing minimises soil disturbance and, done regularly, will gradually weaken plants and prevent them self-seeding
  • Dig out isolated plants or small clumps – tubers can be as deep as 40cm in the soil so use a border fork, inserted vertically, to lift plants with the tuber attached. Sieving the soil afterwards helps identify any young tubers or tuber pieces that you’ve missed
  • Clear beds and replant – where lords-and-ladies is widespread within a border, it may be necessary to lift your border plants, dig out the weed and sieve through the soil before replanting. You’re unlikely to find and remove all the tubers, but it should make it easier to keep on top of those that do reappear. Just be sure to check the rootballs of your border plants for hidden tubers before replanting. This is best done between late autumn and early spring, when border plants are dormant
  • Lay opaque mulches – a good option for clearing the weed from uncultivated areas or empty borders. Use biodegradable weed matting or a 15cm (6in) deep bark mulch and leave in place for at least two growing seasons

If you aren’t able to dig out lords-and-ladies, or don’t wish to apply such a thick mulch, some control can still be had by regularly pulling off the leaves and deadheading any flowers that appear. This method won’t eradicate the plants, but should gradually weaken them and prevent further spread.

Top Tip

As lords-and-ladies grows easily from seed, and can regenerate from small pieces of tuber, it is best not to add any berries or roots to your home compost bin – put them in your council green waste recycling bin instead. 

Should I use a weedkiller? 

No – there is little evidence that this plant is susceptible to weedkillers. Although time consuming, lords-and-ladies can be controlled and removed using non-chemical methods, which is better for the environment. 

For more advice on controlling lords-and-ladies see our guide to Weeds: non-chemical control.

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