Have you seen a Celandine?

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

24th February 2017

Tradition says they ALWAYS flower this week...

In 1795, the renowned naturalist Gilbert White observed that the first celandines usually appeared in his Hampshire village of Selborne on the 21st February. A hundred years later, exactly the same average date was observed by Hertfordshire botanist John Hopkinson. Even today, this date holds more or less true; in 2014 the first peak in flowering was around the 17th February.

The name 'celandine' is derived from the Greek chelidon meaning ‘a swallow'. Of course, the two don’t appear in our countryside at the same time; instead it’s thought that the name might have arisen because celandines were simply viewed as a vegetable version of the swallow – a floral first sign of spring.

Talking of names, the lesser celandine (as opposed to the greater celandine, which is an entirely different plant) has recently undergone a bit of taxonomic jiggling around. Familiar to generations of field botanists as Ranunculus ficaria, the name originally bestowed upon it by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, it was changed to Ficaria verna in 2010 (in the 3rd edition of Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles). Now, I don’t in any way object to taxonomic accuracy - there are rules to follow, after all – but this sort of meddling is unnecessary and gives taxonomy a bad name (pardon the pun!). I suggest we have a moratorium on names, only accepting new ones after a review every 10 years. This would allow taxonomists to make up their minds, and field botanists to have fewer headaches (and don’t get me started on poor old corn marigold, which has gone from the poetic Chrysanthemum segetum to the downright ghastly Glebionis segetum).

Anyway, back to the lovely little lesser celandine. The bright flowers, with their paler lemon eyes, really are a thoroughly cheerful sight in early spring, but I also love them because of their leaves. Small, rounded and slightly fleshy, they can be delightfully patterned with pale green and purple shades, and many an hour can be spent searching for different combinations. Sometimes the purple takes prominence and occasionally covers the whole leaf, as in the popular garden variety ‘Brazen Hussy’ (what is it with these names?)

Celandines grow in woodland and along hedgerows, verges, riverbanks and cliff tops. Often they form complete carpets of yellow stars, especially where the soil is damp and conditions are cool.You might think that William Wordsworth’s favourite flower would have been the daffodil of his famous poem. In fact, it was the lesser celandine. He wrote no less than three poems about this bright and beautiful flower - The Small Celandine, To the Same Flower and To the Small Celandine:

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.


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