Lesser Celandine

The lesser celandines (Ficaria verna) are in flower.

Celandines are the floral equivalent of the swallow, they appear around the same time and mark the coming of spring. In fact the word celandine comes from the Greek name for swallow: chelidon. One of its local names is spring messenger; others are brighteye, butter and cheese, frog’s foot, golden guineas and, less romantically, pilewort because it was once used to treat haemorrhoids.

Lesser celandine thrives in wet fertile ground and flowers in dense carpets in woodland and under hedges before there are any leaves on the trees and bushes. It is an early source of nectar and pollen for insects, particularly important to the species that hibernate in their adult form: peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, and bumblebee queens for instance.

When the woodland canopy thickens and the ground dries, the plants will wither away and enter a long period of dormancy. Their seed will germinate the following spring but some subspecies will more easily and prolifically reproduce from small fleshy tubers that form in their leaf axils and on their stems.

Left: Lesser celandine seedhead; right: tubers in the leaf axils

Lesser celandine was taken into the USA as a garden flower in the nineteenth century, where it has, since, achieved the status of invasive weed; another example of the dangers of introducing alien species.

It has spread easily and quickly in America because, there, it has no natural competitors. It has been found to have a growth-inhibiting effect on several native species that are important food sources for native pollinating insects. And like all buttercups, celandine is toxic, even more so for animal species that did not evolve with it.

It is the commonest of flowers: bright, cheerful, a promise of things to come and a glimpse of the complexity of a woodland floor.

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