Monday, 5 January 2009

The Lesser Celandine, Pilewort, French - Ficaire, Petite Chélidoine, Latin -- Ranunculus ficaria .

It is a common flower of the early spring yet last year I found them difficult to find. This year, it is in abundance. But then the weather has been particularly mild. Botanists classify it as a buttercup, but apart from the fact that the flowers are yellow, one might mistrust such a relationship. Normally buttercups are poisonous, but the young leaves of this plant can be eaten in a salad. The glossy thickish heart shaped leaves often marked with a dark central stripe or whitish blotches are not at all like those of the usual buttercups. Buttercups have five petals but this species has anything between eight to twelve. There are three sepals (not five) hiding underneath the petals. The flowers fold up at night and in low temperatures. A further botanical oddity is that the germinating seeds only have one seed leaf. These structural features all suggest that the plant in evolutionary terms is close to the ancestors of both the two branches of flowering plants – the dicotyledons and the monocotyledons – the latter includes grasses, onions and lilies-.
But the petals reveal the buttercup relation. They are very glossy. This is unusual among flowers and a feature possibly unique to buttercups. One recalls the childish game, as common in France as it once was in England, of ‘do you like butter?’ as a yellow light is reflected onto a child’s chin from a shiny flower held below. The pip like fruits, arranged in a spiral heap on each flower base are also characteristic of the buttercups.
Apart from that there is some mystery about its name. The French ficaire and the Latin ficaria are said to relate to the form of the roots looking like a bunch of figs (Latin ficus ). Not to me! The roots are a tiny bunch of elongated tubers. Some ancient herbalist claimed they looked like haemorrhoids or piles. From that thought comes the name of pilewort. The French even list it as ‘herbe aux hémorroides’ . The ancient herbalists followed the misleading ‘doctrine of signatures’ and by the similarity considered its use as a cure for that misfortune. But the name ‘Celandine’ and ‘Chélidoine’ is from the Greek meaning ‘swallow’. Further confusion comes from the same name being used for a quite unrelated plant – the Greater Celandine. The only reason for this name which descends to us seems utterly absurd: that is the Greeks (as Aristotle states it) had a myth that the birds, the swallows, fed one or the other (probably the other) of the plants to their nestlings to improve their eyesight.
If you see this flower search for tiny swellings or bulbils in the axils of the leaves. One subspecies has them, another does not. They readily fall off and create new plants. But its seeds are mostly infertile. . In my region I have so far only found the subspecies without these bulbils.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The Fouine - Beech or Stone Marten

La Fouine or Hêtrière , Beech Marten - or Stone Marten- from the German Steinmarder,
Latin -Martes foina

This animal appeared on the steps to our courtyard, looking uncertain in its movements and even perhaps ill. It curled itself up and went to sleep. Later it ‘toddled’ down to the back door, laboriously negotiating the steps and then curled itself up on the coconut mat. From nose to tail tip it was about 60 cms. long – not a small beast.
Believing it to be in far from perfect condition we gave it some bread and milk, which it ignored. It slowly went away again with a lumbering gait. Then it found its way to the other side of the property. In the evening it was eating the fallen plums. The next morning we found numerous small scratched out holes beneath the walnut tree of much the same appearance as a rabbit might make. The creature had probably searched for insect grubs and beetles. No doubt any unwary mouse or shrew also fell prey. But the animal itself was asleep near the washing line and when disturbed bounded like a kitten. The animal is essentially nocturnal and I imagine that its apparent lethargy in the day, was because we had disturbed its slumbers!
Anecdotes like this of the behaviour of the fouine are not uncommon. It can be domesticated, rather like its close relative the polecat, which after some generations of domestication has become the ferret. It is claimed that the fouine can live up to 18 years. I could not possibly approach it to smell it, but it is said that it has a not unattractive smell, unlike the polecat which stinks. Another relative, the pine marten, is very similar to the fouine, distinguished chiefly by having a yellowish bib, rather than white, and rather more pointed ears. It is far more wary of humans.
Before we had our roof re-tiled, fouines could wake us with a great thumping in the attic. When fouines take up home around or in habitations, they can cause damage. Insulation and gaines can be chewed. Bits of car engines have been damaged. The creature may be found in the heart of towns as well as the countryside. It has the English name of Beech Martin, although it does not exist in Britain. Whenever the English name Beech marten was invented it copied another ancient French name of hêtrière (of the beech tree). It so happens that the original Latin word for the beech tree, a name which continued in use in southern France, i.e. fagus became faîne in denoting a wood of small beeches. This word became fouine and so the name of the animal originating from the Occitan also means the creature of the beech trees.