Lesser Celandine- Ranunculus ficularia, also known in English as pilewort, small celandine, smallwort, figwort, brighteye, butter and cheese. In Welsh it is Lygad ebrill.
Amongst the earliest wildflowers to bloom, the Lesser celandine has long been one of my favourite wildflowers. When I was a child growing up in Northamptonshire, a part of my walking route to school was along a Green Lane. This was a narrow pathway with grass verges backed by hedgerows and mainly used as a short-cut to the village by anyone walking or riding a horse or bike.
Behind the hedge on one side was a small field that was often boggy and there was a drainage ditch on the lane side to prevent it flooding. Needless to say it was damp there and generally shady; the perfect place for celandines to thrive. They were the first of the wildlowers to appear here and I looked forward to their appearance avidly.
I used to think their shiny golden yellow faces captured some of the sunshine whilst it shone, then held it within their tightly closed petals to keep them warm on cold dull cloudy days. I learnt very young that these were not the flowers to pick to take home to my mum, but I remember how the sight of them used to gladden my heart, as it still does, signalling that the spring was on its way.
The plant itself is small (5-30cm tall). The dark green, shiny, heart-shaped leaves grow spirally arranged around long weak stalks from the base. The leaves are sometimes mottled with light or dark markings; they lie flat on the ground unless held up by surrounding plants.The flowers are bright, glossy yellow, fading to nearly white at the petal base as they age.
The Lesser celandine is one of the first flowering plants to appear at the end of the winter (February to May). Gilbert White, the famed author of ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ reported that the plants came out on February 21, but it is more commonly reported to flower from March until May, and is sometimes called the “spring messenger” as a consequence.
IMPORTANCE TO INSECTS
As with most early flowering plants, the lesser celandine provides welcome nectar to a variety of insects and although they are pollinated by bees, such as the Buff-tailed bumble bee, Red-tailed bumble bee, flies and beetles, very few seeds are typically set. They open when few insects are around so not many seeds are produced and spread is mainly vegetative by tiny bulbils which develop in the leaf axils and these drop onto the soil as the plant dies back.
THE MEANING OF THE NAME
The plant’s common name, lesser celandine, was mistakenly given to it when it was thought to be one and the same plant as the true or greater celandine, to which it bears no resemblance except in the colour of its flowers – both being yellow. The word celandine comes from the Greek word chelidon, meaning swallow, the greater celandine coming into bloom when these birds arrive, and withering on their departure. The scientific name Ranunculus is Late Latin for “little frog,” from rana “frog” and a diminutive ending. This probably refers to many species being found near water, like frogs. The plant grows from root-tubers, which are said to look like bunches of figs. This explains the second part of the scientific name of the plant, ficaria, which is Latin for fig.
THE CELANDINE IN POETRY
A number of poems have been written about the celandine. The poet William Wordsworth was very fond of the flower and it inspired him to write three poems including the following, which are the first two verses from his ode to the celandine:
The Lesser Celandine
There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!
When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.
Upon Wordsworth’s death it was proposed that a celandine be carved on his memorial plaque inside the church of Saint Oswald at Grasmere, but unfortunately the Greater Celandine Chelidonium majus, was mistakenly used.
THE CELANDINE IN TRADITIONAL HERBAL MEDICINE
The plant used to be known as Pilewort because it was used to treat haemorrhoids. Supposedly, the knobbly tubers of the plant resemble piles, and according to the doctrine of signatures, this resemblance suggests that pilewort could be used to cure piles.
The German vernacular Scharbockskraut (“Scurvyherb”) derives from the use of the early leaves, which are high in vitamin C, to prevent scurvy. The plant is widely used in Russia and is sold in most pharmacies as a dried herb.