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.

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