Britain’s woodlands are, understandably, the envy of the world; they may cover only a small part of our island but they are packed with plant life – particularly in spring before the leaves on the trees have opened fully.
The woodland floor can be covered with flowers – from the shining white stars of anemones to the azure of that most traditional of forest flowers, the bluebell. And in and among, particularly in dappled glades, can be found the shining sun of spring – the lesser celandine.
Forget about daffodils; this small wonder was Wordsworth’s favourite flower and he wrote several poems celebrating its ability to bloom so profusely so early in the year (“celandine” comes from the Greek chelidon meaning “swallow”, the bird which many consider announces the arrival of spring).
There is a flower, the lesser celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’t is out again!
The last two lines refer to the plant’s habit of closing its petals when the weather is poor, then opening them to greet the sun.
The lesser celandine, Ficaria verna, is actually a perennial member of the buttercup family. A British native, it is widespread in woods, hedgerows and on the banks of streams, but can also be found in gardens where, if left undisturbed, it can become a major nuisance, particularly in areas where the soil is sandy, damp and rich in organic matter.
It grows from root tubers and spreads mainly by bulbils, and because of its short growing period, it can often be overlooked, allowing it to colonise areas where it isn’t wanted – particularly among spring-flowering bulbs or plants such as primroses.
Trying to beat Ficaria verna by digging it out is not to be recommended – it’s virtually impossible to remove all the tiny tubers. In fact, the lesser celandine’s success is to a certain extent the result gardeners and livestock disturbing the soil in which it lives.
It’s also poisonous to both man and beast so needs to be treated with respect. But in the wilds of the woods, it is one of the finest flowers of spring.