The vagaries of our northern weather and when spring decides to arrive, determines when our annual hunting the gowk expedition and visit to the trembling ladies takes place. This year it was late April, a little early but the weather was glorious and we were ultimately rewarded by finding the ladies dressed in divine green and the sound of a distant cuckoo.
On the way we stopped to look at a field, which is only a short distance from our croft but I have never quite get round to investigating.
For most of the year, it is just a damp meadow, nothing special in the Hebridean context, although in the summer the iris beds usually house a Corncrake or two. However, in April it is transformed by glistening clumps of golden Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) into a field of gold. It is a common plant in the islands, but I have never seen a field where it is so abundant. It is clear why the Celts named it grian after the sun, particularly as it closes its petals in response to changes in temperature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, celandine is derived from the Latin chelidonia (Greek – chelidon) meaning swallow – it was said that the flowers bloomed when the swallows returned. However, further south Lesser Celandines flower well before the swallows arrive: Gilbert White reported that in Hampshire it was usually in flower by the end of February, supporting the alternative vernacular name of “spring’s messenger”. It is possible that the association with swallows is related to the Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) and a complex myth involving the use of sap from this plant by female swallows to restore the eyesight of their young.
Myths, magic and folklore are all intricately involved in the naming plants, often with the medicinal properties thrown in for good measure. Hence one of the old names for Lesser Celandine is pilewort. The root tubers were said to resembled piles and so in accordance with Doctrine of Signatures, it was prescribed for the treatment haemorrhoids. This is one the coincidences were the herbalists and apothecaries produced an effective treatment, although it had more to do with the chemical components of the plant than its shape. It contains saponins and tanins which are locally anti-haemorrhoidal, hence its inclusion in the British Pharmacopoeia.
In the Outer Hebrides it was believed that the Lesser Celandine’s root tubers resembled a cow’s udder, and they were hung in cow byres to ensure high milk yields. A practice which may have had more to do with magic than any properties of the plant.
Linnaeus gave the Lesser Celandine the scientific name Ranunculus ficaria, incorporating it in the genus which include the buttercups, spearworts, and water crowfoots. Ranunculus is a combination of the Latin rana, (frog), with the suffix –culus indicating the diminutive form – hence Ranunculus means ‘little frog’. This implies an association with damp habitats, although this does not apply to all members of the genus. The specific epithet ficaria means ‘of a fig’ and is a reference to the root structure of the plant – back to the tubers again!
Even without the fascinating etymology and ethnobotany, it is a lovely flower, unless it’s in your garden!