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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Purply-pink flowers of common mallow decorate our waysides

Common mallow, out now along roadsides

Common mallow’s purply-pink flowers are out now along our roadsides and anywhere there is a bit of rough unkept ground. I admire the toughness of this rugged plant which responds to the regular cutting it often gets by ducking low, and sticking its flowers out close to the ground, as if to say, ‘I can’t be beaten’.

My aunt, Elsie, tells me the local name in the Fens for these flowers is ‘Pick-cheese’ as their fruits have the texture of soft cheese. They are edible, I am looking forward to trying one. Nearly two hundred years ago John Clare, the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’ wrote in ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar’

‘The sitting down when school was oe’er,
upon the threshold by his door
Picking from mallows sport to please
each crumpled seed he called a cheese.’

I think John Clare too must have used the name Pick-cheese for these plants; some of our understanding of this poem would be lost if this local name had not been passed on to us through the generations. Thinking about this, I am struck how these simple wayside flowers give us a link to generations that have gone before us; generations who have enjoyed playing with the fruits of the mallow as a cheese. If our children no longer play this game, we are losing more than just a game. We lose a link to those who have gone before us, and a link forward to the generations to come. These rough flowers on our waysides offer us so much.

Common mallow flowers with their wide open heads are much loved by pollinators.

Common mallows also provide a feast to insects hungry for pollen. Tomorrow I will be writing about an insect with the most fabulous thighs that I caught tucking in…

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