Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Species: R. ficaria
Lesser celandine, (Ranunculus ficaria, syn. Ficaria grandiflora Robert Ficaria verna Huds.) is a low-growing, hairless perennial plant, with fleshy dark green, heart-shaped leaves. According to Gilbert White, a diarist writing around 1800 in the Hampshire village of Selborne, the plants came out on February 21st, but it is more commonly reported to flower from March until May, and is sometimes called the “spring messenger” as a consequence.
Synonyms and Common names: Ficaria ranunculoides (Moench.), pilewort, small celandine, smallwort, figwort, brighteye, butter and cheese
German = Scharbocks-hahnenfuss, French = Ficaire, Italian = Scrofularia minore, Spanish = Celidonia
Before the introduction of the binomial system of naming plants, The Lesser Celandine was known as Ranunculus foliis cordatis angulatis petiolatis, which meant ‘ the Buttercup with cordate (heart-shaped) leaves and angled petioles’. With the Binomial system, the names became much shorter, before this time each plant had as its name a short descriptive phase or sentence in Latin which had to memorised in order to refer to a particular species accurately.
Its botanical name, Ranunculus ficaria, is derived from the Latin word rana meaning frog, because frogs live in the same habitats as the buttercup family (i.e. marsh), to which the lesser celandine belongs, and ficus (a fig), because its tubers resemble bunches of figs.
Its common name, lesser celandine, was mistakenly given to it when it was thought to be one and the same plant as the true or greater celandine, to which it bears no resemblance except in the colour of its flowers – both being yellow. The word celandine comes from the Greek word chelidon, meaning swallow, the greater celandine coming into bloom when these birds arrive, and withering on their departure.
Ranunculus ficaria is a common perennial which emerges in the spring from a knot of tubers. Indigenous to Britain, Europe and western Asia. It is now introduced in North America. Very common in damp, shady places. Lesser celandine is found in a range of habitats, including woodlands, hedgerows, churchyards, road verges, meadows, in gardens and waste ground and on river banks. In a woodland setting it can produce a pleasent carpet, but if it gets into a flowerbed it can can be prolific. It prefers bare, damp ground and in the UK it is often a persistent garden weed.
There are two native subspecies in Britain. Ranunculus ficaria exists in both diploid (2n=16) and tetraploid (2n=32) forms which are very similar in appearance. However, the tetraploid type prefer more shady locations and frequently develops bulbils at the base of the stalk. These two variants are sometimes referred to as distinct sub-species,R. ficaria ficaria and R. ficaria bulbifer respectively. The latter bears tuberous bulb-like structures known as ‘bulbils’ at the points where the leaf stalks meet the main stem of the plant.
Subspecies ficaria has a wide distribution throughout the British Isles, becoming scarcer in Scotland. Subspecies bulbifer has a more eastern distribution, and is fairly rare around the western coasts of Britain. Both subspecies are widespread in Europe. Subspecies ficaria tends to thrive better in less disturbed habitats than subspecies bulbifer.
Height – 50-250mm
Flowers – March-May
As the local name ‘spring messenger’ suggests, lesser celandine is one of the first flowers of the year. Its bright buttery yellow flowers are a cheering sight in the middle of February, brightening hedgerows and woodlands alike. Here the celandine exploits the trees’ natural cycle, blooming while their branches are bare in early spring, then dying back completely once their leaves come out and the shade becomes dense – this shade, however, is also vital, for it kills grass and other weeds with which the celandine could not normally compete. The solitary flowers are more numerous than the Buttercup. The flowers are bright, glassy yellow, fading to nearly white at the petal base as they age.
Single at tip of stem, opening only on fine days
Size – 20-30mm
Stalk – much longer than flower
Bracts – absent
Petals – 8-12, narrowly oval
Sepals – 3, oval
Stamens – numerous
Stigmas – 1 per ovary
Ovary – numerous, 1, celled
Type – hermaphrodite
Stem – angled upwards, base rooting
The rich yellow flowers open only during daylight throughout March and April with the Spring sunshine, often in such great numbers that they carpet with gold a woodland floor or hedge-bank. This perennial plant remains in full bloom throughout March and April but begins to fade in early summer.
The solitary yellow flowers have 8 to 12 glossy petals backed by three sepals, each with a nectary at the base. The flowers of lesser celandine close just before it begins to rain, and are pollinated by bees, such as the Buff-tailed bumble bee, Red-tailed bumble bee, flies and beetles, but very few seeds are typically set. They open when few insects are around so not many seeds are produced and spread is mainly vegetative by tiny bulbils which develop in the leaf axils and these drop onto the soil as the plant dies back.Seeds – 1, not released.
Size – up to 2.5mm
The dark green, shiny, heart-shaped leaves grow spirally arranged around long weak, stalks from the base. The leaves are mostly radical, the petioles up to 15cm long, and the lamina up to 4cm long and 5cm broad, ovate, cordate or reniform, edge shallowly toothed, base notched. The leaves are sometimes mottled with light or dark markings, they lie flat on the ground unless held up by surrounding plants. Their dense cover can sometimes obliterate other spring flowers. The leaves and flowers die back completely in late spring. As they do so the roots swell into tubers – these can be roasted and eaten.
Hairs – absent
Stipules – absent
Leaf-stalk – base broad, overlapping other stalks
The plant grows from root-tubers, which are said to look like bunches of figs. This explains the scientific name of the plant, ficaria, which is Latin for fig. Another alternative name of this celandine, pilewort, also derives from the appearance of these knobbly tubers. Their general similarity to haemorrhoids led to the plant being widely used to treat this condition.
The fleshy roots, up to 3cm long, are oblong or club-shaped, fibrous, with many small swollen tubers, which store all the plant’s energy through winter, and are then able to push forth leaves and flowers in early spring, when other plants are still dormant. The tubers grow and multiply every year, this being another way in which the celandine spreads. Some plants have tiny swollen buds called bulbils where the leaves join the stems, and all plants have small tubers through which they are able to last the Winter.
The plant dies back during May, and remains dormant throughout the rest of summer, autumn, and winter, with nutrients stored in the underground root-tubers. These tubers allow the plant to spread quickly in disturbed areas – they break away from the roots and give rise to new plants. The subspecies bulbifer can also spread by means of the tuberous bulb-like structures it produces at the junction between plant stem and leaf stem.
Digging the area can break up the tubers making the problem worse. Dig carefully with a fork and try to remove all of the root. The following spring either try to remove any missed plants or treat with a systemic weedkiller. The annual Tagetes minuta (Muster-John-Henry) is said to inhibit growth due to an allelopathic effect of the roots, so a planting may help to clear out an infestation of Celandine. A dressing of wood or coal ash is said to remove an infestation of Lesser Celandine.
All parts of the plant contain toxins which are more potent as the flowers and fruit appear. Young leaves can be boiled like spinach or eaten in a salad, and the flower buds are a substitute for capers. The German vernacular Scharbockskraut (Scurvywort) derives from the use of the early leaves, which are high in vitamin C, against scurvy.
Parts used: the tubers and sometimes the whole plant
Collection: the tubers are unearthed in May and June.
Constituents: Saponins (based on hederagenin and oleanolic acid), anemonin and protoanemonin, tannin
Actions: astringent, locally demulcent
Indications: haemorrhoids. Specifically indicated for internal or prolapsed piles with or without haemorrhage by topical application as an ointment or suppository.
Therapeutics and Pharmacology: As suggested by this herb’s common name, it has a traditional use in the treatment of piles, both as an internal remedy and in the form of an ointment or suppository. Nowadays, it is used only externally because of its acrid nature. The saponins are locally anti-haemorrhoidal, an action enhanced by the astringent tannins. The saponins have a fungicidal action. Protoanemonin in the fresh plant is antibacterial and a strong local irritant but it is not found in the dried material where its dimer anemonin is inactive.
Combinations: This herb can be combined with Plantago major and Calendula for haemorrhoids, or with Hamamelis as a suppository.
Caution: External use only is recommended.
Preparation and Dosage: (thrice daily)
Regulatory Status: GSL Schedule 1
Dried plant: 2-5g or by infusion
Liquid Extract: 1:1 in 25% alcohol 2-5ml
Ointment: 3% in suitable base
Ointment B.P.C. (1934) 30% fresh plant in benzoinated lard
Suppositories B.P.C. (1934)