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Cornucopia - In Praise of the Lesser Celandine

In praise of the Lesser Celandine
Bob Foulds

Ranunculus ficaria (or Ficaria ficaria, as some taxonomists have suggested, thus raising its name to a generic level) is a well-known native of our woodland flora. Consequently, many Hardy Planters regard it with little affection: almost as a buttercup-like weed. How wrong they may be. Even The RHS Plant Finder of some ten years ago lists nearly 200 variants. Many may be synonymous, as it seems you can name your favourite seedling however you like, regardless of similarities to existing named forms. However, the bright golden flowers, so bravely exposed to the late winter and early spring sunshine, whatever the vagaries of our unpredictable weather, are, in my opinion, a welcome indicator that winter is about to lose its grip.

My particular interest lies in the variability of this species. Flowers can be found double or single, yellow, orange, cream, or white. One is even listed as 'double red', held by the National Collection in Devon, but I have never seen it. Amazingly, there is even a 'green striped' listed, but I haven’t come across this one either. Most interesting though is the variability of leaf colour. Wild types are usually plain green, but it is not uncommon to find many degrees of variegation of silver, red and brown. Selected forms of dark-leaved types are well known, eg 'Brazen Hussy', which is very widely grown. Some of the dark-leaved forms can, in certain lights, reflect a bluish shine. This phenomenon, and the shiny petal feature of the flowers, is due to a hypodermal layer of cells, with white starch grains acting as a light reflector, behind the pigmented epidermis - exactly the same principle as our traffic and vehicle reflectors!

Celandines are easy to grow, and humus-rich woodland-type soil is their habitat. Shade presents no problem, as they flower, prosper and then die back into their resting root tubers before trees in leaf shade them for the summer. This feature of their life cycle gets them out of the way for summer flowers, but they reappear early the next spring. Some variants are sterile, but root tubers are a ready source of propagating material. Many types seed well and cross easily, giving a never-ending succession of surprises.

I keep a celandine bed in which appear a multitude of seedlings of all types, which can then be selected and transplanted when and where required. In summer, when all foliage has died down, a 2 cm (¾ in) layer of leaf mould is applied as a top dressing, and anti-blackbird netting is kept on until the next spring. It’s not that blackbirds attack celandines, but the creatures within the humus-rich soil prove an irresistible attraction to them.

For those Hardy Planters contemplating becoming a 'ficariophile', like myself, give the following varieties a try: Ranunculus ficaria var. aurantiacus, R.f. flore-pleno, 'Brazen Hussy', 'Old Master' and 'Coppernob'. But for real pioneering interest, get out there amongst the hedge banks and woodland margins in March and April and search for wild variants. To whet your appetite for such expeditions, the Tenterden area, for example, has many orange-flowered forms. Nearer to Maidstone, there are larger-flowered specimens and several variegated leaf forms. Who knows what your particular locality may yield?

(But remember it is illegal to dig up and remove any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. – Ed.)

First published in the Kent Group Newsletter, Spring 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: Bob Foulds

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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