The plant that has a Plan B for reproduction

PUBLISHED: 13:35 06 February 2018 | UPDATED: 13:35 06 February 2018

Lesser celandine: flowering much earlier than usual this year.

Lesser celandine: flowering much earlier than usual this year.

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Nature: Grace Corne on the fsacinating natural history of one of spring's earliest flowers.

In the last days of January I was surprised to find several blooms of lesser celandine. This is a plant more usually in flower in March, but this year it is also joined by snowdrops, winter aconites and early crocuses, all, seemingly just a little too early.

This celandine is a member of the Ranunculaceae family and such plants are famous both for frequently being poisonous and being irregular in their plant forms. It would seem this particular plant is not poisonous because in earlier times the leaves were cooked and eaten. The lack of further information on this perhaps indicates the results were not tasty. However, there are also records of the leaves of the plant being boiled, strained and used as a beauty product. One thing is certain and that is that wood pigeons find lesser celandine flowers very palatable and will clear a patch of the plants in a very short time.

As mentioned earlier the plants in flower now may have arrived too soon to be insect-pollinated, and if this does not happen their second method of reproduction is the formation of tiny bulbils in the leaf axils. These mature during the summer months, then fall in the autumn ready to develop new plants in the spring. In some years quite large quantities of these bulbils fall to the ground and spread so thickly they have been mistaken for scatters of wheat.

If inspected closely it may be seen that the petals of this plant have a very obvious gloss, and each has at its end a honey sac to reward would-be insect pollinators. I rather fear that this year that method might not be too successful.

As mentioned earlier, the Ranunculaceae can sometimes produce irregular flowers. In the lesser celandine the number of petals varies a great deal, but by counting many thousands it was decided the average number of petals was eight and the average number of sepals was three. There are even two types of root, fibrous and tuberous, the latter considered to provide a cure for piles.

One word of warning. Lesser and greater celandine are not related, so any recommendation for use written simply as ‘celandine’ should be treated with caution.

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