Saturday, 6 April 2013

Celandine - the Spring Messenger

It seemed like Spring was never going to come this year, so it was heart-warming to spot celandine growing on the grassy banks of the former town wall at Greifswald.

Celandine's name derives from the Latin chelidonia, meaning swallow, and refers to the belief that its flowers bloom when the swallows return, and fade when the swallows leave. It is usually out a lot earlier than this, but Winter seems to have gone on forever.

In German it is called  Scharbockskraut. 'Scharbock' is an old name for 'scurvy' (der Skorbut), and 'Kraut' is a herb. It gets its name because the leaves contain a high level of vitamin C, and dried they were used by sailors in the Middle Ages on long trips to make sure they didn't succumb to vitamin C deficiency (scurvy).

The leaves of celandine can be added sparingly to early Spring salads - but ONLY before the flowers appear, as the plant then starts to develop toxic substances in all its parts. Apparently the toxins can be removed by heat (drying or boiling), but hey, why risk it when rucola leaves taste a lot nicer and are cheap enough in the shops.

The English name for this delightful, sunny-flowered plant is even worse than being called scurvy weed - it is pilewort. That is because its tubers have nodules that look, well, like hemorrhoids to be frank. By the medieval 'doctrine of signatures', plants that can help with ailments have been made to look, by the Divine Creator, like the parts of the body affected. Don't you believe it.

Celandine is part of the buttercup family, which has a characteristic that its members have nodular tubers that helpfully fix nitrogen into the soil (thus cutting down on the amount of fertilizer needed for your crop). But also like buttercups, they are toxic to livestock. By the way, this is lesser celandine I am referring to: there is a greater celandine, but that is an entirely different species that belongs to the poppy family.

William Wordsworth liked this flower (even more than daffodils) and wrote a number of odes to it:

"There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine,
That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain;
And, the first moment that the sun may shine,
Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again!..."

And with that I shall leave the banks of Greifswald be, and see if I can spot any swallows on the river Ryck.

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