Friday, 9 March 2007

The messenger of spring

The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine are one of the first woodland blooms of the year; their rich golden yellow petals mark them out as members of the buttercup family. Lesser celandine is well distributed across Norfolk, and not just within woodland. It is a familiar plant in gardens, appearing in quantity around many Norfolk villages. There are two sub-species, each slightly different in habits and form. One, known as sub-species ficaria occurs in more natural, less disturbed sites – notably areas of ancient woodland. The other, bulbilifer prefers the disturbed ground that is found in gardens and other areas marked by Man’s activities. This form is also a more aggressive plant, able to spread and form carpets of rich yellow and green in areas of heavy shade. Lesser celandine regularly throws up unusual colour forms, including those with white, pale yellow or even orange flowers. However, these do not persist and are soon lost.

The timing of flowering has given rise to a now largely defunct local name of ‘spring messenger’ but it is for another local name that the plant is better known. This name is ‘pilewort’, highlighting the herbal qualities attributed to the plant. The similarity of the tuberous root to the appearance of haemorrhoids led to the plant being used to treat piles. This principle, common in early medicine, held that if something in nature mimicked the appearance of an affliction, then it would serve as a cure for that affliction. Such primitive, and potentially superstitious beliefs, were exploited by commercial herbalists during the 17th and 18th centuries through the Doctrine of Signatures. The doctrine held that all plants carried some physical clue, formed by the Creator, as to their medicinal use. The leaves and roots of lesser celandine were crushed and then boiled in unsalted buttermilk, which, once cooled, could be applied to the afflicted area. The plant is still promoted as a treatment for piles, either to be used as an ointment or drunk as an infusion. It has even been promoted as a treatment for jaundice (because of the yellow flowers) and in Wales it has been used to treat warts.

Lesser celandine has to be one of my favourite blooms, perhaps because it provides a splash of colour so early in the year. It was also Wordsworth’s favourite flower, stimulating the poet to write three separate poems proclaiming its beauty. So strong was his association with the flower that, upon his death in 1850, its image was to be carved on his tomb. Unfortunately, the flower which appears on his monument at Grasmere is greater celandine which, despite its English name, is unrelated, being a member of the poppy family.

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