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. The plant is found throughout Europe and west Asia and is now introduced in North America, where it is often considered invasive. It prefers bare, damp ground and in the UK it can be seen as a common garden plant, an early harbinger of Spring. The flowers are distinctive and bright yellow.
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.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, celandine comes from the Latin chelidonia, meaning swallow: it was said that the flowers bloomed when the swallows returned and faded when they left. The name Ranunculus is Late Latin for "little frog or tadpole," from rana "frog" and a diminutive ending. This perhaps refers to many species being found near water, like frogs, or to the fact that the unopened flowers resemble tadpoles.
According to Gilbert White, a diarist writing around 1789 in the Hampshire village of Selborne, the plants came out on February 21, but it is more commonly reported to flower from March until May, and is sometimes called the "spring messenger" as a consequence.
In non-native locations
In many parts of the northern United States and Canada, lesser celandine is cited as an invasive species. It poses a threat to native wildflowers, especially those ephemeral flowers with a spring-flowering lifecycle. It is mainly a problem in floodplain forests, where it forms extensive mats, but it also can occur on upland sites as well.
In North America, the US National Park Service's Plant Conservation Alliance recommends avoiding planting lesser celandine, and instead planting native ephemeral wildflowers such as Asarum canadense, bloodroot, the native twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), and various species of trillium as alternatives.
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The plant used to be known as Pilewort because it was used to treat haemorrhoids. Supposedly, the knobbly tubers of the plant resemble piles, and according to the doctrine of signatures this resemblance suggests that pilewort could be used to cure piles. The German vernacular Skorbutkraut ("Scurvyherb") derives from the use of the early leaves, which are high in vitamin C, to prevent scurvy. The plant is widely used in Russia and is sold in most pharmacies as a dried herb.
Medicines should be made from the dried herb or by heat extraction as the plant contains protoanemonin, a mild toxin. A single case was reported with acute hepatitis occurring after consuming a remedy made from lesser celandine.  However, the process of heating or drying turns the toxin to anemonin which is non-toxic and has antispasmodic and analgesic properties.
References in literature
The poet William Wordsworth was very fond of the flower and it inspired him to write three poems including the following from his ode to the celandine:
- I have seen thee, high and low,
- Thirty years or more, and yet
- T'was a face I did not know.
Upon Wordsworth's death it was proposed that a celandine be carved on his memorial plaque inside the church of Saint Oswald at Grasmere, but unfortunately the greater celandine Chelidonium majus was mistakenly used.
C. S. Lewis mentions celandines in a key passage of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Aslan comes to Narnia and the whole wood passes "in a few hours or so from January to May". The children notice "wonderful things happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers - celandines".
J. R. R. Tolkien mentions this plant when he describes spring in Ithilien: "Great ilexes of huge girth stood dark and solemn in wide glades with here and there among them hoary ash-trees, and giant oaks just putting out their brown-green buds. About them lay long launds of green grass dappled with celandine and anemones, white and blue, now folded for sleep; and there were acres populous with the leaves of woodland hyacinths: already their sleek bell-stems were thrusting through the mould." The Two Towers, Book IV, Ch 7, 'Journey to the Cross-roads'
"...going down the hedgeside with the girl, he noticed the celandines, scalloped splashes of gold, on the side of the ditch. 'I like them' he said 'when their petals go flat back with the sunshine. They seem to be pressing themselves at the sun.'
And then the celandines ever after drew her with a little spell."
- Linnaeus, Carl (1753). Species Plantarum. p. 550.
- "Swallow". Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1989.
- Swearingen, J., K. Reshetiloff, B. Slattery, and S. Zwicker (2002). "Lesser Celandine". Plant Invaders of Mid-Atlantic Natural Areas. National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.
- Strahl S, Ehret V, Dahm HH, Maier KP. "Necrotizing hepatitis after taking herbal remedies". Dtsch Med Wochenschr. Retrieved 25 February 2013.
- C. S. Lewis (1950). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. End of chapter 11, beginning of chapter 12
- D. H. Lawrence (1913). Sons and Lovers. Chapter 6: Death in the family
- Species Profile- Fig Buttercup (Ranunculus ficaria), National Invasive Species Information Center, United States National Agricultural Library. Lists general information and resources for Fig Buttercup.
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