Nature Nonfiction

LESSER CELANDINE


The sweet spring now is come’ng
In beautifull sunshine
Thorns bud and wild flowers blooming
Daisy and Celadine
Somthing so sweet there is about the spring
Silence is music ere the birds will sing

John Clare Spring
1845

I love the spring almost as much as John Clare did. Though it is only February, it has been a very mild winter and the plants are fooled. They stir and unfurl from the soil in our garden, as though they were newborns taking their first breath. I remember that this happened last year too. Slow worms were basking in late February sun and the daffodils bloomed, and then we were suddenly hit by a frost which must have caused a lot of damage to all but the hardiest of spring beings.

The snowdrops are in full flower, with the daffodils close behind, but of more interest to me is the lesser celandine, Ficaria verna. It’s bright sunshine yellow flower has not yet budded, but the heart-shaped leaves are spreading low across the beds and at the base of our sycamore. 

Celandine’s name is rooted in the spring. It is derived from the greek word khelidōn, meaning ‘swallow’, as it was believed to arrive at the same time as the iconic bird. However, this is not and probably has never been the case. According to Gilbert White and the 19th century botanist, John Hopkinson, the precise flowering date of the lesser celandine is the 21st of February, the day after my birthday and long before the swallow has even thought about leaving its African winter home. I will check for flowers next week, though these Highland plants might be a little more recalcitrant than the Selbourne populations.

The plant’s other name is not so winsome: it is also named pilewort. This is for the reason that the tuber roots of the plant are said to resemble haemorrhoids, and that because of this, a decoction of the tubers and leaves will cure the same ailment. This is a fine example, of which there are many, of the doctrine of signatures—the concept that things in the natural world which resemble a part of the human anatomy can be used as a treatment for ailments concerning those body parts. The use of lesser celandine in the treatment of piles still exists in some alternative medicine practices. There is a medical respect for the efficacy of applying decoctions of the roots as a hot compress to the affected area, though there has not been much research. Perhaps this is subtle proof in the theory of the doctrine of signatures.  

Other historic uses of this plant include a treatment for a disease known as king’s evil, or scrofula, which is a swelling of the lymph nodes around the neck. The great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper claims in his herbal to have cured his own daughter of this disease with the plant, “broke this sore, drow out a quarter of a pint of corruption, cured without any scar at all.” 

The roots are also recorded to have been put under Highland women’s arms to reduce the size of small lumps in breasts, and as a treatment for corns on Colonsay. Another surprising use is the petals and leaves for cleaning teeth.  

I can’t claim to have used lesser celandine in a medical sense, but I have roasted the tubers and can vouch for their delicious flavour. They have a taste akin to sweet potato, and would have been an important source of starch for early humans. The roots are small but very easy to dig up, so not a lot of energy is expended in the gathering. It is important to ensure that they are cooked thoroughly though, as the plant is in the buttercup family, all of which contain a toxin called protoanemonin, which could make you very poorly. Even if you intend to use it as treatment for piles, it must be boiled first, as the toxin can cause rashes when applied to the skin.

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