Sandy’s Garden ... Lesser Celandine

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I have been enjoying reading Geoff Bailey’s most recent book, ‘The Forth Front’, which describes Falkirk district’s maritime contribution to WWII.

In the preface, the author writes of the book being, “primarily an account of the maritime contribution of the Falkirk district to the Allied effort in the Second World War, but it is also a tribute to the people of that area for their untiring and selfless work and their conviction in the right of their cause.” I could not have put that better myself. Among many topics, the activities of the Grangemouth Dockyard are described, including a table showing the surprising (to me) number of vessels built during the war years, among them the corvettes HMS Candytuft, HMS Carnation and HMS Celandine. And it was the name of this last, and perhaps most distinguished, of these corvettes, carrying … perhaps surprisingly … the names of flowers, which caught my eye.

There are two different celandines, greater celandine and lesser celandine, which were at one time thought to be two versions of the same plant … two sisters, if you will. They took their name from the Greek word chelidon, meaning ‘a swallow’, for the plants were said to come into flower as the swallows arrived. But later botanists concluded that the two celandines were not sisters at all; it might be better to compare them to second cousins. Chelidonium majus … greater celandine … is a member of the poppy family: but its second cousin… lesser celandine … was reclassified as a member of the buttercup family becoming, botanically, Ranunculus ficaria, ‘the member of the buttercup family’ (Ranunculus) ‘which has fig-like tubers’ (ficaria). I have no means of knowing which of the two celandines the Lords of the Admiralty had in mind when they resolved to name one of the corvettes being built in Grangemouth in 1940 ‘HMS Celandine’: but I am going to assume that they had lesser celandine in mind, for corvettes are small warships and lesser celandine is the more common of the two north of the Border.

I turn to my trusted and well-thumbed copy of Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for this description of the plant. It is a “low/short hairless perennial with rather fleshy, dark green, heart-shaped leaves, sometimes marked darker. In shady places (it) may have bulbils at base of leaf-stalks. Flowers solitary, with usually 8–12 narrow (yellow) petals, whitening when old. February – May in woods, hedge-banks, bare, damp ground.” In short, it’s a small, dark green plant which bears little yellow flowers in the late winter and spring. Our ancestors used to grub up the tuberous roots and eat them when times were really hard, although I would not recommend this, for, although these same roots were also crushed to yield an ointment which was used to treat corns, external growths and piles, they often caused blisters on the skin. This last use was widespread throughout the United Kingdom and was responsible for the most widely-used alternative name … ‘pilewort.’ To this day, one may find ointment derived from lesser celandine on the shelves of contemporary herbalists for the treatment of haemorrhoids.

Nicholas Culpeper, writing in his renowned Complete Herbal and English Physician, a combination of two books originally published, singly, in 1653 and 1652 respectively, held lesser celandine in high regard. “The distilled water of the whole plant … taketh away all redness, spots and freckles in the face, as also the scurf and any foul deformity therein, and the leprosy likewise.” I had to check that scurf is ‘scaly or shredded dry skin, such as dandruff’: but, while I am content to quote Culpeper’s prescription for its treatment, I am categorically not going to use lesser celandine as a treatment for my dandruff.