Wordsworth’s once-famous poem “To the small celandine” is unlikely to hit the spot for most modern readers, but it’s interesting that he’s honest enough to admit that he’d been seeing this pretty little flower for thirty or more years before he realised what it was and finally took a good look at it. Once he recognised its attractions, he wrote a further two poems about it. (That doesn’t necessarily make it his favourite flower: he wrote at least four about Daisies!)
The Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is a native species, and as its scientific name suggests, it’s a member of the Buttercup family. A current field guide gives its flowering periods as March to May. At St Nicks it is usually out by the end of February – this year’s first record was 22nd – but is rarely found beyond the end of April. 2012 was a very strange year in which it flowered from early January but did carry on into May.
It’s a pretty little plant, with attractive dark green heart shaped leaves and glossy yellow flowers reminiscent of buttercups in colour and general shape, but with more separated and pointed petals closing tight against bad weather but opening out into little stars on sunny days. Wordsworth describes it as
“Telling tales about the sun
When we’ve little warmth or none,”
and whether or not you appreciate the rhythm and rhyme, you have to admit he’s got a point.
Its name is just as attractive – it derives from the Greek word for a swallow, apparently because it came into flower around the time that the swallows arrived and faded when they left. But the flowers have gone long before autumn migration, so, as we shall see, there’s a snag.
Once we’ve described a Lesser Celandine, the prettiness rapidly runs out. Like many plants that flower early, it cannot afford to be entirely dependent on pollination to reproduce itself. So if it establishes itself in a garden location where it isn’t wanted, this apparently delicate little plant turns out to be quite a thug. It spreads relentlessly by means of tiny tubers which need to be found and pulled out one by one – with an added advantage if plentiful spring pollinators enable it to set seeds.
Wordsworth or possibly one of his editors put poetry and practicalities on the same footing by adding a footnote giving the plant’s alternative name. Well, he could always have called the poem “To the Common Pilewort”….. Like most of its family, the plant contains potentially harmful substances, but its astringent properties have seen it used as a remedy for haemorrhoids from at least the mid sixteenth century. The curious thing about the name, though, is that the first known use of the very Anglo-Saxon sounding Pilewort is in 1578, whereas the Greek-derived Celandine dates back to at least 1310.
And that’s the snag… Lesser Celandine implies the existence of Greater Celandine, and sure enough you’ll find it in your field guide. (It hasn’t been recorded at St Nicks.) It has yellow flowers and medicinal properties in common with the Lesser version, but it’s an introduced plant, and not even a member of the same family – it’s a species of Poppy. It grows quite a lot taller, with mid-green compound leaves and produces its disappointingly small, four petalled flowers from mid to late summer. This is certainly the Celandine whose flowers fade when the swallow leave! It rather looks as though the Greater variety must have been introduced in early mediaeval times, and the native species, which only herbalists would have been inclined to write about back then, mistakenly re-branded as a related plant with similar but less important properties. Writing in the seventeenth century, Culpeper plays safe and writes three separate entries, one for Greater Celandine, one for Lesser Celandine, and one almost identical for Common Pilewort.
Confused yet? Our advice is just go out on a sunny spring day, enjoy the little yellow stars among the grass, and keep an eye open for your first swallow.