Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Lesser Celandines

Last Sunday (15.02.2009) was a volunteers' day on Chorlton Ees. Not many people turned up but those who managed to make it did a grand job in controlling the birches and brambles which have been invading a site which is rich in ferns and mosses. At the end of the task we walked back along the path which runs alongside the bank of Chorlton Brook and I saw my first Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) flower of the year. I love to see these flowers because they are a sure sign that spring is on its way!

I believe that the poet Wordsworth felt the same way about the Lesser Celandine and wished to have the image of one carved on his tombstone. Unfortunately, the sculptor comissioned to perform this task was ignorant of botany and carved the unrelated Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) instead (as Homer Simpson might have put it - "dooohhh!!!").

An old name for Lesser Celandine was 'Pilewort'. This was because the roots of this plant were thought to resemble a certain painful affliction of the human nether regions and were used to treat that affliction. This is an example of the application of the so-called 'Doctrine of Signatures' whereby it was believed that if a plant resembled a part of the human anatomy it could be used to treat diseases of that part of the anatomy. It is not recorded whether 'Pilewort' worked or not.

The Victorian writer Anne Pratt, who wrote a number of books on wild flowers, did use the name 'Pilewort' but, unsurprisingly for a Victorian, didn't explain the word's origins. She did note, though, that it, "...closes its flowers from five o'clock in the evening till nine on the following morning" - which is probably true although I haven't studied the matter that closely myself.

As the scientific name suggests R. ficaria is a Buttercup - and hence the first Buttercup of the year.

Dave Bishop - February 2009


Anonymous said...

Thank you Dave Bishop for the info on the lesser celandine. I am sitting in Pennsylvania today. After having observed this cool yellow flower with heart shaped leaves that grows in groups along a road here for more than three Springs, I decided to determine its name and suitablity to my garden. After much searching your note regarding the lesser celandine confirmed my research---even telling that it closes for the night! Only one more curious observation---the leaves seem to have two forms, one like the pictures I've seen and smoother, less mottled, and less toothed, yet still inverted heart shaped. Thank you, thank you!

Dave Bishop said...

Hi Louisa,

How wonderful to receive a comment from Pennsylvania!

Lesser Celandine is a very common wild flower here in the UK. Just a word of warning, though, many people here find that it can be quite invasive in a garden situation.
Having said that it seems to be quite widely distributed in Eurasia and I have seen forms in the mountains of Turkey, for example, which are quite different from the types that we get here.
You might want to do a little more research to dtermine which forms are suitable for an American garden.

Best Regards,