by Clare Coleman

Often flowering as early as February, the buttery yellow stars of Ranunculus ficaria (Celandine) in shady hedgebanks are a welcome hint of Spring.

These flowers are easily recognised yet are in fact very variable - celandines usually have eight petals but six or ten are not uncommon.  A double-flowered form was first found by John Ray as early as 1665.  Celandines also play games with their leaf size and shape.

There are four subspecies but the two subspecies R. ficaria subsp. ficariiformis and R. ficaria subsp. chrysocephalus both with larger leaves (> 4 cm) and petals (up to 6 cm in diameter) are relatively rare. Flower size needs to be observed on early visits as the flowers later in the season tend to be smaller. The table below sets out the key features to look for to identify celandines:

Character R. ficaria ssp. ficaria R.ficaria ssp. bulbilifer R. ficaria ssp. ficariiformis R. ficaria ssp. chrysocephalus
Leaf (diameter) < 4 cm < 4 cm > 4 cm > 4 cm
Flower (diameter) Up to 4 cm Up to 4 cm Up to 6 cm Up to 6 cm
Stems N/A N/A Procumbent and trailing More or less erect
Bulbils None Present after flowering Present after flowering None
Achenes Well developed Not well developed N/A N/A

The celandine's other common name is pilewort - a name originating from the 'Doctrine of Signatures' in medieval Britain which prescribed cures according to physical resemblance of herbs to parts of the body - the celandine's tubers are said to resemble piles therefore the plant was used as a cure for this particular ailment! Celandines are also reputed to have magical properties - if picked on the morning of St. Peter's day (29th June), the plant would give protection from imprisonment.

Further reading and references

Sell, P D (1994) Watsonia 20 41-50