Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 6 April 2022.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna -- until recently Ranunculus ficaria) is an odd plant in lots of ways. 3 sepals and 7-12 petals; those are bizarre numbers for a dicotyledon. I have also seen them called sepaloid tepals and petaloid tepals, which makes a great tongue-twister. The sepals and petals are distinct, but I do see the point. It's the rather tough petals, with their darker undersides, that do the work of protecting the flower in rainy weather. 

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 6 April 2022.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 6 April 2022.

Various subspecies are recognized. The two common ones are:

1. Ficaria verna ssp. fertilis (previously known as Ranunculus ficaria ssp. ficaria). Diploid, forming lots of seed (full achene heads). The standard ssp. of the Atlantic fringe, and still the commonest ssp. in the British Isles, especially in wilder places. 

2. Ficaria verna ssp. verna (previously known as Ranunculus ficaria ssp. bulbilifer). Tetraploid, forming little seed (incomplete achene heads) but spreading by bulbils formed in leaf-axils of flowering stems. The standard ssp. on the European mainland. Common in the British Isles and apparently spreading, especially in areas of human activity. Possibly native, more likely introduced, e.g. in the soil of garden plants grown in European nurseries. 

The two subspecies are difficult to tell apart until flowering is almost over (around the beginning of May). It then becomes obvious which plants are producing bulbils and which form complete seedheads.  
[This information comes from Michael E. Braithwaite's interesting paper in British & Irish Botany 2(3): 215-222, 2020: . ]

Based on my own very limited observation, plants that produce late flowers tend to be ssp. fertilis.

Bulbils forming on Ficaria verna ssp verna. Frome, 24 April 2022.

Ficaria verna ssp. verna

Ficaria verna ssp. fertilis 

Wikipedia names three other Ficaria species. They all look pretty similar. On the basis of limited internet searching, Ficaria fascicularis is a small alpine that grows in Armenia (also known as Koch's Buttercup). Ficaria ficarioides, with crenate leaves, grows in Greece. [I couldn't find out anything definite about Ficaria popovii but I think it's a synonym of one of the other taxa.]

But it really isn't much of an exaggeration to say that there is essentially only one Ficaria species. The polymorphism yet lack of speciation is another mystery about such a widespread and successful plant. 

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 6 April 2022.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 28 March 2022.

I have not a doubt but he,
Whosoe'er the man might be,
Who the first with pointed rays,
(Workman worthy to be sainted)
Set the Sign-board in a blaze,
When the risen sun he painted,
Took the fancy from a glance
At thy glittering countenance.  

(from William Wordsworth, "To the Same Flower")

Various parts of the plant can be eaten at various times, avoiding peak protoanemonin (the Ranunculaceae toxin). In particular the post-flowering root tubers can be sautéed and are reportedly delicious:

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 30 March 2021.

The name Lesser Celandine is incredibly ancient. It is a herbalist's name. Such a common plant must have acquired popular names too, but I've yet to see a list. One common alternative was Pilewort (reflecting the striking resemblance of the clustered root tubers to a bad case of piles, and thus its presumptive medical value for sufferers). 

As far back as Dioscorides' De materia medica (c. 50 - 70CE) the plant has always been paired with the botanically unrelated Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus). It is of the latter plant that Dioscorides says that its name arises "because it springs out of the ground together with the swallows' appearance and withers with them departing. Some have related that if any of the swallows' young ones is blind, the female parents brings this herb to heal it" (2-211). Nevertheless in  Swedish svalört ("swallow-wort") means Lesser Celandine. The name for Greater Celandine is skelört, the prefix derived from Chelidonia

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) alongside Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus). Frome, 5 April 2022.

Here is Dioscorides' entry (presumably with some later interpolation) about the Lesser Celandine:


Chelidonia minor (which some have called sylvestre triticum) is a little herb full of little feet, without a stalk (compact), with leaves similar to cissus [2-210 -- Ivy], yet much rounder, smaller, tender and somewhat fat. It has many small roots from a single place, growing close together like wheat grains, but there are three or four which grow out long. It grows around waters and marshy places. It is sharp like anemone, ulcerating to the outside of the skin. It takes away parasitic skin diseases and scabbed nails. The juiced roots are put into the nostrils with honey for purging the head. Similarly a decoction of it gargled with honey powerfully purges the head, and purges all things out of the chest. 

Here's a rough and literal translation of most of the entry for Ranunculus ficaria in C.A.M. Lindman's Nordens Flora (this is the 1901-1905 text as revised by Magnus Fries in 1964  -- I'm not totally sure of those dates). Obviously Lindman is writing from a Swedish perspective (and hence is talking about the bulbil-bearing ssp. verna). 

Lesser Celandine differs from other Nordic Ranunculus species in that it has only three sepals and numerous long-slender petals. ... The species is low-growing and partly prostrate and its flowers appear as early as April and May. At the base of the flowering plant are a number of tubers among the other thread-like or string-like roots. Even when the plant is just a little seedling and puts out its first leaf, there arises in the leaf-axil a bud which produces a club-like tuber, and when the plant has become somewhat larger it soon bears a whole bunch of them. From the small buds that belong to these tubers, far from all develop shoots or stems, so the task of this bunch of tubers is to serve as a food supply for the flowering stems. In the leaf axils there are bulbils which are released from the parent plant and grow into new plants. In Lesser Celandine's case they are rounded or oval and consist in the main of a short, thick root. Their colour is whitish brown, and where celandine grows in quantity they sometimes strew the ground in such large amounts that they have given rise to stories of "a rain of wheat". The mature fruit of Lesser Celandine is less frequent, as is often the case with species that have a strong vegetative reproduction. 

[It's evident that Lindman is here describing spp. bulbilifer.]

The name "Ficaria" was already used by botanists before Linnaeus and refers to the fig-like (or pear-like) shape of the tubers.  .... Like other true spring plants the celandine is strongly periodic. When the June warmth becomes too great the plant disappears and survives until the following year only as bulbils and tubers. It thus belongs, together with e.g. Yellow Gagea and Corydalis species, to the
 spring aspect of deciduous woods and groves. 

Lesser Celandine is commonly found within the region of large deciduous trees with stray occurrences further north. It is native through Europe and as far as western India, and has been introduced into North America.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 31 March 2021.

Wordsworth knew the plant from an early age, but in another sense, a social sense, he did not know it. It had been, so to speak, a person he had not been introduced to. Then, in his early thirties, a relationship formed, recorded in his three Celandine poems. 

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself,
Since we needs must first have met
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
'Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day.

(from "To the small Celandine")

In a hazel coppice: Lesser Celandine, Wood Anemone, Bluebell. Frome, 20 April 2022.

Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 25 March 2022.

White forms are fairly common, and are sold in garden centres. You can also get varieties with doubled petals or dramatically orange-yellow with chocolate undersides.

White form of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 25 March 2022.

A glassy form of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 2018-ish.

A tawny-backed form of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 8 April 2022.

A tawny-backed form of Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Frome, 8 April 2022.

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