Cardamine pratensis (Cuckoo Flower)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Brassicaceae (Mustard)
Life cycle:perennial
  • State Threatened
Habitat:part shade, shade; moist to wet; forested swamps, wet meadows
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:8 to 20 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 4-petals Cluster type: raceme

[photo of flowers] Loose, elongating cluster of white flowers on slender stalks at the tip of the stem. Flowers are about ½ inch across, have 4 white petals, occasionally pinkish or lavender, broadest above the middle, rounded and sometimes slightly notched at the tip. In the center are 6 creamy white to pale yellow stamens and a pale green style.

[photo of sepals and raceme] The 4 sepals surrounding the base of the flower are 3 to 5 mm long, less than half as long as the petals, oblong to narrowly egg-shaped, green to yellowish.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: compound

[photo of lower stem leaf] There are both basal and alternate stem leaves compound with 5 to 13 leaflets. Basal and lower stem leaves are up to ~3 inches (2 to 7+ cm) long, the leaflets round or kidney shaped, the tip leaflet being the largest, ~¾ (2 cm) long, often with shallow, scalloped teeth or lobes. Leaflet surfaces are hairless though edges may be sparsely hairy.

[photo of upper stem leaf] Upper stem leaves are widely spaced, shorter stalked than the basal leaves, the leaflets narrowly elliptic to linear with smooth edges. Leaf stalks are mostly smooth or with short, sparse hairs. Stems are unbranched, slender and erect but very weak, often flopping over unless supported by surrounding vegetation. 

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

Fruit is a slender pod, straight, erect to ascending, 1 to 1¾ inch (2.5 to 4.5 cm) long with a short beak at the tip.


Cuckoo Flower is native to temperate regions of both North America, Europe and western Asia with old and new world populations separate as varieties, though not all authorities accept this separation. Some consider all populations introduced from Europe until further study is done, though it seems rather unlikely the Minnesota populations are anything but native and any revised taxonomy should eventually reflect that. Worldwide there are several varieties or subspecies mentioned in various references, at least 3 in Europe and 2 others in North America, though again they are not universally recognized.

What is considered the native North American var. palustris is restricted to cooler latitudes; in Minnesota it's found only in cold and wet, northern forested bogs, cedar swamps, and streams. According to the DNR, only 10 known populations exist in Minnesota, even after extensive biological surveys, and it was listed as a Threatened species in 2013. Its greatest risks are from land use changes, mining in particular, and forest management changes that alter the hydrology and canopy cover in its often shaded, wet habitat. In these habitats it is typically lax and spindly and is characterized by smaller basal leaves with smooth, toothless edges and by upper stem leaves that are stalked. In Europe, var. pratensis is a more robust, widely adapted species found in warmer and drier upland forests and meadows, is typically pink in color, with larger and toothed basal leaflets and upper stem leaves that are stalkless. This variety was introduced into North America, moved around by gardeners and has become naturalized and weedy in places like roadsides and lawns, from New England to Indiana.

Our Minnesota Cuckoo Flower is somewhat similar to our native Spring Cress, (Cardamine bulbosa) that can also be found in heavily shaded, wet woodlands where it to grows weak and spindly. However both its round to kidney shaped basal leaves and upper stem leaves are simple, not compound divided. Pennsylvania Bittercress (C. pensylvanica) does have divided leaves like Cuckoo Flower, but its flowers are much smaller, 1/8 to ¼ inch across, and is a much more robust plant.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Beltrami County.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Steve P - In Grand Marais, Cook County
on: 2017-06-24 19:14:04

Identified using Newcomb's guide. Was growing in an open delineated wetland (no standing water), along the north side of County Road 12 (Gunflint Trail), at the edge of town. Might have been two dozen plants scattered over 150 square feet. Odd location - a road right-of-way. No pictures.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2017-06-24 20:38:15

Steve, if it was along a roadside it might have been Cardamine parviflora rather than C. pratensis.

Posted by: Steve P - Grand Marais, Cook County
on: 2017-06-28 10:16:30

Site was visited yesterday and identification confirmed (C. pratensis) by Chel Anderson, a botanist/plant ecologist with the DNR's Ecological and Water Resources division.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2017-06-28 12:01:13

Cool find :-)

Posted by: Angela Strantz - Mahtomedi, washington county
on: 2023-05-10 09:05:25

Identified based on Peterson/McKenny's Field Guide to Flowers. Plants are intermingled with marsh marigolds in the wetlands behind our home. We lived here for more than 20 years. The marsh marigolds have flowered every year. These white flowers have appeared for the last 4 or 5 years. They are growing in a mostly sunny area that has clear standing water.

Posted by: Angela Strantz - Mahtomedi, Washington County
on: 2024-02-08 12:16:00

The DNR came on site and confirmed identification. They collected samples for preservation by the University of Minnesota.

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