Glossy yellow petals of celandines spell spring

Celandines light up shady corners. Photo: Joan Lintott

At Stapleford Primary School we had a nature table. Fifty years on, I still remember my thrill when one spring I found celandine flowers under the shade of a hedge, along the snicket lane between our home and the school, picked one and with great pride presented it to my teacher to go on the table. I’ve always looked out for it since as a sign of spring.

These flowers are out now, all around Burwell, wherever there is a bit of a shady patch where wildflowers have been allowed to grow. ‘Celandine’ may come from the Greek ‘khelidon’ for Swallow, possibly as it is in flower at a similar time to the arrival of the first Swallows. I have yet to see a Swallow this year, I expect they will be arriving here soon…

Tuberous roots of celandine look like haemorrhoids(!), and were used to treat them, so the plant was called pilewort.

Less elegantly, celandines also have the name ‘pilewort’ as their tuberous roots, look like haemorrhoids. Just what you needed to know! As part of ‘signature medicine’ where what looked like something was used to treat it, these roots were used to make a poultice to treat piles. As my daughter’s science teacher once famously said after demonstrating an explosive experiment to her class, ‘don’t try this at home!’

Look at a celandine flower and you can see why celandines belong to the buttercup family of flowers. Like buttercups, they have golden yellow petals, that are each separate from one another, and lots of stamens and stigmas (at the top of the nobbly bits in the centre of the flower).

A key difference is that celandines have more petals than buttercups: buttercups have five petals, while celandines have between 7 and 12 petals. That each celandine flower may have a different number of petals shows that this is a species from early on in the evolutionary development of flowers – randomly, they are just ‘going for it’. Species that developed later have optimised their shape to maximise the efficiency of reproduction.

Celandines have heart shaped glossy green leaves

Celandines can also be recognised by their distinctive glossy heart shaped leaves.

Celandines are celebrated in the poem below by John Clare, written in 1845.

On a Lane in Spring

A Little Lane, the brook runs close beside
And spangles in the sunshine while the fish glide swiftly by
And hedges leafing with the green spring tide
From out their greenery the old birds fly
And chirp and whistle in the morning sun
The pilewort glitters ‘neath the pale blue sky
The little robin has its nest begun
And grass green linnets round the bushes fly
– How Mild the Spring Comes in – the daisy buds
Lift up their golden blossoms to the sky
How lovely are the pingles and the woods
Here a beetle runs—and there a fly
Rests on the Arum leaf in bottle green
And all the Spring in this Sweet lane is seen.

John Clare

(a ‘pingle’ is a small enclosed space)

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Buttercups – and not just any Buttercups – Bulbous Buttercups

Bulbous buttercups on Pound Hill, Burwell

Children love to play the game of picking a buttercup, then putting the flower under someone’s chin. When the chin glows yellow, to their delight they have ‘proved’ the person likes butter. Yet the Oxford Junior Dictionary has taken buttercup out of its dictionary. The word is no longer used often enough by children to merit inclusion. Buttercups are out all round our village, so now’s the time to look out for and enjoy them again.

The buttercups growing throughout the village are treasures, with their glowing colour, glossy petals and abundance and are also much loved by insects for all the pollen they provide. There are three commonish species of buttercup: creeping, bulbous and meadow. We are lucky to have the more unusual bulbous buttercups growing in our grassy areas around Burwell.

You can tell one buttercup species from another by their different leaf shape , however its really easy to tell bulbous buttercups as their underneath petals, officially called sepals, fold backwards down their stems. As you walk round the village, take a quick look.

Bulbous buttercup growing on Newmarket Road, with sepals folded downwards below the petals and fine cut leaves.

If you are with children why not let them pick a small bunch, while leaving some for others and the insects to enjoy. For a long while there has been a strict rule about not picking wild flowers. This has led to people no longer taking much notice of them or enjoying them. Buttercups are sufficiently common for picking them not to cause a problem and the plants will flower again after being picked.

Try pressing buttercup flowers – I first gained my love of flowers from pressing them. Pick some buttercups, lay them between a few layers of newspaper, put some cardboard either side and weight this ‘sandwich’ down with a few books. After a few days you can glue them into a ‘flower book’ or use them to make a card for someone who needs a bit of cheer.