Celandines (Ficaria verna)

by Clare Coleman and Peter Llewellyn

Often flowering as early as December the year before Spring, the buttery yellow stars of Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna (old name Ranunculus ficaria) in shady hedgebanks are a welcome hint of Spring. The usual flowering time is March and April but as the climate has warmed early reports of flowers e.g. November have become more frequent.

These flowers are easily recognised yet are in fact very variable - celandines usually have eight petals but six or ten are not uncommon.  A double-flowered form was first found by John Ray as early as 1665.  Celandines also play games with their leaf size and shape.

In the 2010 third edition of New Flora of the British Isles by Professor Clive Stace, the systematic (Latin) names of Lesser Celandine were changed. The commonest sub species Ranunculus ficaria ssp. ficaria was not, as might have been assumed, changed to Ficaria verna ssp. verna but to Ficaria verna ssp. fertilis. Ficaria verna ssp verna is the sub species with small bulbils in the leaf axils previously known as Ficaria verna ssp. bulbilifer. The right hand photo shows the very small bulbils of Ficaria verna ssp. verna in the leaf axils which take a bit of finding as they are rarely to be seen as you look directly down on the plants. The bulbils are hard to find and the flowers and leaves look much the same as Ficaria verna ssp. fertilis so this plant is probably under recorded. Ficaria verna ssp. ficariiformis also has bulbils but is very rare.

There are four subspecies but the two subspecies Ficaria verna ssp. ficariiformis (Ranunculus ficaria ssp. ficariiformis) and Ficaria verna ssp. chrysocephalus (Ranunculus ficaria ssp. chrysocephalus) both with larger leaves (> 4 cm) and petals (up to 6 cm in diameter) are relatively rare. Flower size needs to be observed on early visits as the flowers later in the season tend to be smaller. The table below sets out the key features to look for to identify celandines:

New Name: Ficaria verna ssp. fertilis Ficaria verna ssp. verna Ficaria verna ssp. ficariiformis Ficaria verna ssp. chrysocephalus
Old name: Ranunculus ficaria ssp. ficaria Ranunculus ficaria ssp. bulbilifer Ranunculus ficaria ssp. ficariiformis Ranunculus ficaria ssp. chrysocephalus
Leaf (diameter) < 4 cm < 4 cm > 4 cm > 4 cm
Flower (diameter) Up to 4 cm Up to 4 cm Up to 6 cm Up to 6 cm
Stems N/A N/A Procumbent and trailing More or less erect
Bulbils None Present after flowering Present after flowering None
Achenes Well developed Not well developed N/A N/A

The celandine's other common name is pilewort - a name originating from the 'Doctrine of Signatures' in medieval Britain which prescribed cures according to physical resemblance of herbs to parts of the body - the celandine's tubers are said to resemble piles therefore the plant was used as a cure for this particular ailment! Celandines are also reputed to have magical properties - if picked on the morning of St. Peter's day (29th June), the plant would give protection from imprisonment.

Further reading and references

Sell, P D (1994) Watsonia 20 41-50