Mrs Grieve wrote with fondness for lesser celandine. Its “cheery, star-like blossoms” are so eager to appear that they light up “our hedges even before winter is quite spent”.
The plant’s glossy green foliage and shining yellow flowers inspired 19th-century poet William Wordsworth to praise its “glittering countenance”.
Lesser celandine was Wordsworth’s favourite flower and its blossoms are mistakenly assumed to have been carved on his memorial inside Gransmere Church, Lake District.
Having not visited the church myself, I can’t say for sure. However if you look at photos of his memorial the plants in no way look like Lesser Celandine and in fact the one to the right of his head looks vaguely like Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus).
One of the first heralds of spring, its beauty is brilliant and brief. The blossoms are at their best in March and April, but fade and wither by May.
Botanical Name of Lesser Celandine
- Ficaria verna
- Ranunculus ficaria
History Of Lesser Celandine
William Turner in 1548 made the first mention of Ficaria verna as a British plant:
“Figwurt groweth under the shaddowes of ashe trees”.
The juice is an irritant that beggars used in the Middle Ages to artificially create the impression they were covered in sores, thereby engendering more charity from passers-by.
On Oronsay in the Hebrides, Scotland deposits of charred tubers and bulbils have been found around ancient Mesolithic settlements.
In Wales when the plant begins to flower it was said to be the time for sowing crops.
The roots and bulbils where hung up in cowsheds as it was believed doing so would increase the cream content of the milk.
Culinary Use Of Lesser Celandine
The plant traditionally has been cooked as a pot herb. Leaves, stems, roots and bulbils are cooked and served with meat.
In Europe the tradition was to cloche the plants using sawdust. The result being, in effect, blanching the plant which meant that the development of protoanemonin as well as chlorophyll was inhibited.
The end result being whitish harmless leaves that could be eaten raw.
The author does not advise eating any part of this plant raw due to its protoanemonin content. During his ethnobotanical research, he has found no historical evidence of the leaves of Lesser Celandine being eaten raw unless first cloched (see above).
Corsica: The small bulbils of the root are cooked for a few minutes in boiling water, then served with olive oil and course sea salt.
Poland: The leaves where eaten as a cooked vegetable until the late 19th century.
Sweden: The leaves are traditionally boiled, and likewise in Italy. The bulbils can be fried or boiled, and the tubers can be boiled or roasted as well.
Folk Use Of Lesser Celandine
Lesser celandine has the Doctrine of Signatures to thank for its less flattering English name of pilewort.
The Doctrine assigned herbs to treat the parts of the body that they resembled in appearance.
Its bunched tubers were thought to resemble piles, thus the plant was used as a cure for piles.
Nicholas Culpeper wrote:
“It is certain by good experience that the decoction of the leaves and roots doth wonderfully help piles and haemorrhoids.”
Its common name of figwort also alludes to a remedy for piles; ‘fig’ being an old name for piles.
In his Names of Herbes in 1548 it’s listed as ‘fygwurt’.
Lesser celandine had been re-introduced to the British Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for piles by the time Mrs. Grieve wrote her Modern Herbal.
It could be taken internally as a decoction or suppository, or externally as an ointment or poultice.
Local remedies varied from boiling fresh lard and straining through the flowers of lesser celandine (Guernsey) to simply carrying a sprig in one’s pocket (an old gypsy remedy).
In Ireland where lesser celandine is a common woodland plant, it was an ingredient in an ointment for piles.
And an ointment of the roots or bulbils could also treat corns and warts.
The herb was well-known in ancient herbals and from the Middle Ages onwards. It was mentioned by Galen and Dioscorides (if, as Mrs. Grieve reminds us, we do not assume they refer to greater celandine), and later by Gerard.
Culpeper was particularly impressed by the plant’s healing power:
“The very herb borne about one’s body next [to] the skin helps in such diseases though it never touch the place grieved”.
Indeed, a Scottish Highland practice was to put celandine roots under-the-arm to treat swellings in the breast.
Among its other virtues, lesser celandine could clear the head of ‘filthy humours’ as mentioned by Gerard and Culpepper tells us that it could treat the King’s Evil, referring to the disease scrofula, and other tumours.
On this matter, Culpeper wrote:
“Let good people make much of it for these uses, with this I cured my own Daughter of the King’s-Evil, broke the Sore, drew out a quarter of a pint of Corruption, cured it without any scar at all, and in one week’s time.”
In the Middle Ages, sailors returning from long sea voyages ate the plant to treat scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C, of which lesser celandine is very high.
In Russia the roots, stem and leaves of the plant were used for treating diseases of the chest and also for scurvy and haemorrhoids.
Cosmetic Use Of Lesser Celandine
The leaves used to be used to clean teeth. And ‘an infusion of the leaves left till cool, then strained’, the liquid being used as a skin cleanser and toner.
Toxicity, Contraindication And Side Effects
Barnes, Anderson and Philipson advise against internal consumption of lesser celandine and warn that external use may cause skin irritation.REF
The plant sap might also cause nausea and vomiting and Karalliedde and Gawarammana warn that lesser celandine should not be used internally and that its safety is not established during pregnancy or when breastfeeding – thus it’s best avoided.REF
Use of the herb should be discontinued if breathing or swallowing problems develop, or if it causes chest pain, or swollen and itchy skin.REF