Monday, 5 March 2012

A little piece of sunshine

Pansies, Lilies, Kingcups, Daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there's a sun that sets
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are Violets,
They will have a place in story:
There's a flower that shall be mine,
'Tis the little Celandine.


from To the Small Celandine, by William Wordsworth

Today I came across the first real spring flower I've seen around here while I was walking by the river bank in the sun. It was a celandine - a lesser celandine to be precise - its halo of glossy, butter-yellow petals wide open as if to soak up those first bright, warm rays of the year. On duller days it seems to radiate that sun again, shining golden against its deep green, arrowhead leaves.

Like Wordsworth I've never understood why celandines seem to be the Cinderella of our spring flowers. Apart from being beautiful in their own right they often appear well before the much more celebrated primroses and violets, making them the true heralds of spring. Maybe its because most gardeners see them as weeds, spreading inexorably through the herbaceous borders with their tenacious, underground tubers, resisting all attempts to tame them. Or perhaps its because in the past they had a less than romantic common name. 'Pilewort' was perhaps unlikely to inspire literary ecstasy in poets less in tune with the natural world than Wordsworth.

In the 17th and 18th centuries herbalists signed up to the questionable practise of the 'Doctrine of Signatures'. This meant that they believed that if a plant looked like something you could use it to cure that problem. Thus lungwort was believed to be good for your lungs because its leaves looked like diseased lungs. Nipplewort was used as a poultice for breasts because of the shape of the flowers buds. And pilewort was made into a paste for haemorrhoids because the tubers on the roots looked like - yep, you guessed it.

Happily not many people know it by its old name these days - and presumably even fewer use it medicinally! So, just like Wordsworth, I'm trying in my own small way to raise the profile of the humble lesser celandine. They're democratic plants, flowering in all sorts of habitats from woodlands to gardens, wasteland to riverbanks, though they often prefer the shadier places. If you see one tell a friend - spread a little sunshine.

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