Foraging lesser celandine -The Spring messenger

Foragers identification guide to the edible wild plants of Britain

Foraging lesser celandine ( Ficaria verna syn Ranunculus ficaria) Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family.

Lesser celandine will be found in full bloom during March and April

In Germany not so many years ago, it was common for country folk to go out foraging lesser celandine in the very early part of spring. You didn’t have to travel far to find the plant in well-wooded countryside, and get to the high levels of Vitamin C found in the leaf. 

It could be possible that here in Britain we have gone foraging lesser celandine more for its medicinal astringency found in the roots, helping us in a fight against troublesome haemorrhoids and varicose veins. We know our ancestors went foraging lesser celandine for food and medicine. 

Lesser celandine is said to have been William Wordsworth’s favourite flower. The Lakeland poet (1770 – 1850) paid homage to it in more than one poem…” I have seen thee, high or low, thirty years or more; and yet t’was a face I did not know”.  Did he have piles and need the plant? Likely, given his reported love of opium! Read two celandine poems at the foot of the page.

Carpets of small green leaves and a profusion of yellow flowers

With favourable temperatures and sunshine, the lesser celandine can bloom en massé in March. Formerly known here in Britain as the ‘spring messenger’, you can spot this plant from a distance during early spring. Look for the carpets of small green leaves and a profusion of golden-yellow flowers,  noticeable as we move through February and March.

Extensive populations of celandine leaves are found in late winter/early spring. They are a glorious sight in dappled woodland light, even more so if joined by one or more of:  Wood anemone, wild garlic, cow parsley, wood avens, stitchwort, and if really lucky, some bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).

If brave and adventurous you can go foraging lesser celandine leaves in December!
Lesser celandine in December. Found in a stream-side habitat.

Lesser celandine is one of about 700 species to have been placed in the genus Ranunculus. Its previous generic name is derived from the Latin word rana – for frog, because this genus of plants are found in the same damp, wet, and marshy habitats as amphibians. The plant’s specific name ficaria is derived from the Latin for fig-ficus, because its tubers were said to resemble bunches of figs! Recently, the plant has been placed in a separate genus, named Ficaria.

The ancient name given to lesser celandine before the present  system was ‘Ranunculus foliis cordatis angulatis petiolatis’ – or the ‘buttercup with cordate leaves and angled petioles’. I think the older Latin classification for plants is a beautifully descriptive method, full of words we can recognise from our modern languages of English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Who said Latin was boring and pointless?

Botanical description to help when foraging lesser celandine.

With the glossy, two toned, mottled-green appearance greeting you when foraging lesser celandine, you can soon distinguish it and other plants with heart-shaped leaves.
Glossy, hairless, and two toned, mottled-green appearance

Lesser celandine has long-stalked leaves, 4-6 cm wide, produced each year from the small underground tubers. The leaves are glossy and hairless, and often found with a distinctive two-toned, mottled appearance. 

At least one variety or sub-species has carbohydrate-rich bulbils in the leaf axils. These are a surprise double harvesting bonus for the sharp-eyed when foraging lesser celandine!

Lesser celandine leaves are found with entire margins in most of the populations I’ve come across. However, certain sub-species (essentially regional variations) of lesser celandine, in various areas of the country, will be found with crenated and almost frilly margins. 

No stipules are present on the buttercup plants, which helps to distinguish them from say, rose family plants which do have these small, leaf-like growths at the base of a stem / stalk.  Read more on the various easy-to-remember, plant family patterns and fast track your foraging learning.

Lesser celandine flowers will close up to rain and dark windy days

In flower lesser celandine has solitary stems that reach around 25 cm high. Lovely glossy yellow flowers erupt among carpets of leaves. The flowers will close-up on rainy or dark windy days. When meeting the sun, its flowers are between 2.5 – 4 cm wide. They have three sepals, and anywhere between eight-twelve petals,1-2 cm long. The inner part of the petals and the stamens are coloured yellow-orange, giving the flowers a two-tone colour also.

The fibrous roots produce lots of spindle-shaped tubers, some 3-4  cm long. The majority of tubers are small and present an extremely fiddly task in preparing to eat. The tubers are for me, strictly survival food, or something I will maybe use as a garnish if I’m wanting an unusual talking point for a paleolithic diet discussion.

Extensive carpets of leaves can be found in late winter/early spring. They are a glorious sight in dappled woodland light, more so if the bluebells and stitchwort are out also. Lesser celandine also has rapidly creeping underground stems, enabling it to quickly form dense lush mats of growth.

Habitats to look in when foraging lesser celandine.

Try any hedge-banks, verges, riversides, roadsides, and woodlands at altitudes up to 750 metres. This natural woodland species finds a home in almost all parts of Britain, and will be found in many urban settings as well. Foraging lesser celandine s a nationwide and simple affair. This distribution map will help you appreciate just how common the plant is.

The plant has evolved to complete its flowering cycle before the tree canopy is fully open, taking advantage of higher light levels found in February, March, and April. By June it will have retreated to the underground until the very end of the year. Keep your eyes peeled in milder spots from December.

Parts used Roots, leaves.

Harvest Leaves from January. Roots are best when plant is dormant from May-June onwards, or just emerging in December and January.

Key constituents Lactones including anemonin; protoanemonin (not present in the dried product); triterpenoid glycosides; saponins; tannins; vitamin C.

Actions Astringent. Slightly bitter.

Phamacology and Medicinal uses This plant has traditionally been chiefly used as a medicine for haemorrhoids, for many hundreds of years. It was specifically used for internal or prolapsed piles with or without haemorrhage. Lesser celandine is generally used by topical application as an ointment or as a suppository.

We know that our ancestors looked at the plant’s knobbly tubers and saw, with a sympathetic magic mindset, a resemblance to piles. We used this ‘signature’ of the plant to determine our course of action medically. A system based on viewing the microcosm and macrocosm of ‘Gods creation’ and applying plant medicines based on a ‘Doctrine of signatures’ soon took hold in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many ‘discoveries’ still apply today, and this plant is one such case. 

I wish to discuss the relevance of plant signatures today, in a later article. No sniggering at the back. What are your views?

The fact that few clinical tests have been done with pilewort does not detract from its efficacy as demonstrated by long-standing traditional use. Anti-haemorrhoidal activity has been documented for the saponin constituents. Its general astringency will also contribute to this effect.

Edible uses The leaves are high in vitamin C. A cautionary note when foraging lesser celandine: You need to know that for absolute foraging safety, the leaves require cooking due to the presence of an irritant compound, protoanenomin, which is found in many buttercup family plants.

I would like to see any scientific studies regarding the build up of this compound (first isolated from one of the Anenome species) in the leaves and roots. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the leaves contain highest amounts when the plant is in flower. Your individual tolerance dictates what course of action to take when eating this plant, as it does for all plants.

My experience of Protoanenomin is that concentrations do alter, and that I am happy to eat lesser celandine leaves raw in a mixed dressed salad from when they first begin to re-emerge, and for a month or two, until most leaves are out and flowers appear.

If it’s a warm sunny March day, and the leaves are used as a trail nibble, lesser celandine will almost certainly irritate. Remember here that sorrel is for thirst-quenching, mallow is for soothing, and lesser celandine needs dressing or cooking! I do cook lesser celandine occasionally, as a ‘spinach’ green but prefer foraging nettles as they begin to come through in the early spring.

For sure, eating raw will ensure the highest Vitamin C content in the leaves. The leaf’s previous importance to the Germanic people is evident in the fact that the German common name for this plant translates to ‘scurvy leaf’. Did they eat it cooked? It isn’t difficult to see our ancestors gathering lots of leaves for the pottage broth.

The majority of my eating lesser celandine has been as a raw leaf, albeit in a dressed salad, and cooked as a pot herb. You can find more pondering on the wider context of wild plant edibility, within the field or the kitchen, and in my foraging hacks page. If you want to try your hand at cooking with wild plants, then head over to the wild food recipe page, where there are an increasing number of recipes.

I’ve been exploring lesser celandine tubers a little this winter, doing a few time and motion studies as to how long it takes to harvest, prepare and cook them, and frankly they are a survival food for when the shit has really hit the fan! Other than that, you basically get scant reward for the time and energy spent on getting them to the table.

Look-a-like plants to know when foraging lesser celandine

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) can superficially look like lesser celandine and especially so at a distance.

Although it’s not particularly frequent, winter aconite is a plant scattered in its distribution across mainly Southern and Eastern Britain. This buttercup family plant has a similar flowering period, flower colour, size, and display, but the leaves are quite different to each other.

The winter aconite has what looks like a ruff of leaves under the flower. The leaves are deeply divided, more or less palmately-lobed. Winter aconite also producers small tubers, more round in shape than lesser celandine. The flowers are 20-30 mm across.

Winter aconite will happily grow in woodlands, by roadsides, in hedge-banks, and in parks and gardens.

Lesser celandine is one of more than 80 species covered in my colour coded harvesting charts, a handy set of pdf’s giving you an at-a-glance guide to what’s in season .

If you are wanting to discover more about foraging and wild foods, then don’t delay and book a place on one of my upcoming foraging walks.

Meanwhile, here’s what William has to say…maybe muse on them when foraging lesser celandine.

To the Small Celandine.

“Pansies, lilies, kingcups, daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there’s a sun that sets,
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are violets,
They will have a place in story:
There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.

Eyes of some men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I’m as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out,
Little Flower!–I’ll make a stir,
Like a sage astronomer.

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself;
Since we needs must first have met
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
‘Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day.

Ere a leaf is on a bush,
In the time before the thrush
Has a thought about her nest,
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we’ve little warmth, or none.

Poets, vain men in their mood!
Travel with the multitude:
Never heed them; I aver
That they all are wanton wooers;
But the thrifty cottager,
Who stirs little out of doors,
Joys to spy thee near her home;
Spring is coming, Thou art come!

Comfort have thou of thy merit,
Kindly, unassuming Spirit!
Careless of thy neighbourhood,
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood,
In the lane;–there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ’tis good enough for thee.

Ill befall the yellow flowers,
Children of the flaring hours!
Buttercups, that will be seen,
Whether we will see or no;
Others, too, of lofty mien;
They have done as worldlings do,
Taken praise that should be thine,
Little, humble Celandine!

Prophet of delight and mirth,
Ill-requited upon earth;
Herald of a mighty band,
Of a joyous train ensuing,
Serving at my heart’s command,
Tasks that are no tasks renewing,
I will sing, as doth behove,
Hymns in praise of what I love!”

And  The Lesser celandine…

“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, ’tis out again!

When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.

But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
“It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.

“The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue.”
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.

To be a Prodigal’s Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser’s Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!”

Happy foraging!

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