The appearance of the first celandine and the return of the swallows to our shores, praised by Wordsworth for their “brilliant face,” are Ian Morton’s favorite and long-awaited harbingers of spring.
The nation is waiting – when will the first swallows appear? Records dating back to Victorian times point to March as the most likely month, although migrants often arrive earlier. The Hampshire naturalist and diarist Gilbert White noted in his The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (first published in 1789 and never out of print since) that “The house swallow…usually appears on April 13th or so…seen much earlier”. In 2018 and 2019, sightings were reported in the south of the country during unusually warm periods in early February.
The village tradition considered February 21 as the day when the bird should fly, but the swallow was not the only one who welcomed the new growth season, since the flowering of the lesser celandine was also expected on this day. There was no accident here. Celandine is the Anglicized form of chelidon, which means “swallow” in Greek. Since ancient times, the bird and the plant have been twin harbingers of spring – and remain so to this day.
Not to mention the many golden daffodils that flash before the mind’s eye, William Wordsworth preferred celandine. “There is a flower that will be mine, this is a small celandine,” he wrote in one of three poems dedicated to a modest plant clinging to the ground.
He suggested that the spread of pointed petals and its “sparkling face” would inspire artists who aimed to depict the sunrise. Perhaps he knew that the Celts called the plant child, their word for the sun. Indeed, Wordsworth loved the lesser celandine so much that he asked for it to be engraved on his tombstone in St Oswald’s churchyard in Grasmere. His memorial plaque in the church properly depicts a celandine, but oh my god, the artist unwittingly chose the wrong celandine.
The poet’s lesser celandine is a member of the ranunculaceae family, and despite their superficial resemblance and their related belonging to the buttercup order, the greater celandine belongs to the poppy family, with the two plants being classified in the mid-18th century. However, Wordsworth may not have despaired, as the writers seem to have risen above any need to distinguish between the two.
The first poet to extol the celandine was William Brown of Tavistock, whose 1613 work described it as “a shepherdess of incomparable beauty”. Others who praised the celandine included the poet and essayist Edward Thomas, who died in Arras in 1917, and the writers C.S. Lewis and D.G. Lawrence. The last one, in Sons and loversnoted their “jagged bursts of gold”.
At home in humid forests, lesser celandine is one of the first plants to produce flowers before the canopy of leaves blocks out the light. It dies back in May and remains dormant until the end of the year. Its vernacular names included spring herald, smallflower, clear eye, syrniki, butter and cheese, kenningworth, gentleman’s cap and frills, golden guinea fowl, and frog’s foot , also loved the plant).
In the language of flowers, small celandine means “future joys.” A less attractive folk alternative was wormwood, named after the Doctrine of Signatures, which upheld the tradition that if a plant or part of it resembled a part of the human body, then it could be used to treat a condition affecting that part. The root of the celandine tuber was taken for a hemorrhoid and, according to the Teaching, it was also called fig – fig – an archaic, albeit figurative, name for hemorrhoids.
To further confuse the etymology, the plant’s Latin name is ficaria verna, spring fig. In the US, where the lesser celandine is condemned in several states as invasive and toxic to pasture livestock, it is known as the fig buttercup.
Its glossy petals, which it has from seven to 12, have the same structure as that of the buttercup and another relative, marsh marigold. Research at the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands determined that the surface of the petal has a one-cell-thick optical layer that emits light both outward and inward. The inner surface scatters the light onto the layers of air, starch and mesophyll below, the starch deflects it back so that it passes through the pigment twice to get this rich yellow color.
The sheen of the surface is perceived by the obliquely approaching insects as a flash of brightness, beckoning the pollinator, and the petals are closed for the night, and also on the day when rain is expected.
While it reproduces through a dozen or so tubers that detach to form new plants, it also produces granular seeds at the junctions between the stem and leaves. During heavy rain, they can be washed away and collected in drainage channels, giving rise to the village myth of the “wheat rain”.
Lesser celandine retreats in May, when the four-petaled greater celandine blossoms take over and last until September. The secret name of this version, Chelidonium majus, refers directly to the Greek language and claims to have a wider and more varied medical use. Marked by Pliny and Dioscorides and recommended for toothache, eye problems, gallstones, and dyspepsia, its isoquinoline alkaloid spectrum today claims that even a moderate dose of herbs would be dangerous if the toxicity were not eliminated by cooking or drying.
Folk names included yellow saliva, dovetail, nipple, reed (fever is a skin problem like ringworm and eczema) and warthog, the applied juice was pungent. The association with swallows is associated not only with the presence of birds, but also with the ancient belief that if swallow chicks peck out their eyes, the parent birds restore them with the help of plant sap. Anglo-Saxon medicine prescribed an infusion of the warm plant with honey in a brass or copper pot as an eye salve, its value first noted in 1310. The notion of its optical properties is preserved in John Gerard’s Herbal of 1597, which stated that “it purifies and absorbs mucous substances which are split around the eyeball”.
Nicholas Culpeper maintained a curative belief in both celandines in his 1792 Herbal. Of the smaller plant, he stated that “if you dig up the root of it, you will see an exact image of the disease they usually call piles.” Oil or ointment “easily cures both hemorrhoids … and royal evil.” This last disease was scrofula, a swelling of the glands in the neck, now recognized as a symptom of tuberculosis, but traditionally curable if touched with the royal hand, a superstition that only died with Queen Anne in 1714.
Culpeper claimed to have cured his daughter of scrofula with a celandine ointment that “removed the ulcer, pulled out a quarter pint of rot, and healed without a single scar in a week.” He went on to state that the plant has a complex effect and, if kept on the skin, “helps in such diseases, although it never touches the affected area.”
Culpeper also described great celandine as “one of the best remedies for the eyes – this alone has cured the most desperate inflamed eyes.” He added that “it’s best to tone down the spiciness with a little breast milk.” The plant and root, boiled in white wine and taken with aniseed, “opens obstruction of the liver and bile, helps with yellow jaundice … helps with dropsy and itching, and also with old ulcers.” The distillation of great celandine can be used “with a little sugar and good molasses against the plague”. Culpeper echoed the “plague water” tradition, celandine was one of a dozen plants that, when distilled in white wine and stirred for three days, protected against infection.
Mystics believe that large celandine signals happiness, cures depression and, when placed on a pillow, induces prophetic dreams. Folklore said that the witch, who carried the plant in a red pouch that hung around her neck, hoped in this way to avoid exposure and imprisonment.
Conversely, a floor washed with water infused with celandine was supposed to repel witches, and burning the plant as incense had the same effect. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, the plant scared off officials, especially law enforcement and tax collectors, and helped them escape.
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