Homage to Grian

The vagaries of our northern weather and when spring decides to arrive, determines when our annual hunting the gowk expedition and visit to the trembling ladies takes place. This year it was late April, a little early but the weather was glorious and we were ultimately rewarded by finding the ladies dressed in divine green and the sound of a distant cuckoo.

On the way we stopped to look at a field, which is only a short distance from our croft but I have never quite get round to investigating.

Lesser Celandine field
Lesser Celandines (Ranunculus ficaria)

For most of the year, it is just a damp meadow, nothing special in the Hebridean context, although in the summer the iris beds usually house a Corncrake or two. However, in April it is transformed by glistening clumps of golden Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) into a field of gold. It is a common plant in the islands, but I have never seen a field where it is so abundant.

It is clear why the Celts named it grian after the sun, particularly as it closes its petals in response to changes in temperature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, celandine is derived from the Latin chelidonia (Greek – chelidon) meaning swallow – it was said that the flowers bloomed when the swallows returned. However, further south Lesser Celandines flower well before the swallows arrive: Gilbert White reported that in Hampshire it was usually in flower by the end of February, supporting the alternative vernacular name of “spring’s messenger”. It is possible that the association with swallows is related to the Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) and a complex myth involving the use of sap from this plant by female swallows to restore the eyesight of their young.

Myths, magic and folklore are all intricately involved in the naming plants, often with the medicinal properties thrown in for good measure. Hence one of the old names for Lesser Celandine is pilewort. The root tubers were said to resembled piles and so in accordance with Doctrine of Signatures, it was prescribed for the treatment haemorrhoids. This is one the coincidences were the herbalists and apothecaries produced an effective treatment, although it had more to do with the chemical components of the plant than its shape. It contains saponins and tanins which are locally anti-haemorrhoidal, hence its inclusion in the British Pharmacopoeia.

In the Outer Hebrides it was believed that the Lesser Celandine’s root tubers resembled a cow’s udder, and they were hung in cow byres to ensure high milk yields. A practice which may have had more to do with magic than any properties of the plant.
Linnaeus gave the Lesser Celandine the scientific name Ranunculus ficaria, incorporating it in the genus which include the buttercups, spearworts, and water crowfoots. Ranunculus is a combination of the Latin rana, (frog), with the suffix –culus indicating the diminutive form – hence Ranunculus means ‘little frog’. This implies an association with damp habitats, although this does not apply to all members of the genus. The specific epithet ficaria means ‘of a fig’  and is a reference to the root structure of the plant – back to the tubers again!

Lesser Celandine

Even without the fascinating etymology and ethnobotany, it is a lovely flower, unless it’s in your garden!

9 thoughts on “Homage to Grian

  1. Aren’t plant names fascinating? I love all the stories behind the naming, so really enjoyed reading your post. Your photos are beautiful too… just goes to show that even the most annoying garden weed can look lovely in a wild setting.

    • I am fascinated by the names of plants and it also helps me remember the scientific names if I understand the Latin/Greek derivation.
      This display is quite stunning and I’ve never seen anything to rival it.

  2. Fascinating! I yearn to visit.

    • The islands are very special even when it pouring with rain and blowing (like today). So while you’re saving the $ in the piggy bank, you’re welcome to take a virtual tour any time.

  3. Ah, my top-up of wise words… all very edifying. And I can vouch for the haemorrhoid info – the appearance of, not the use of celandine for – having just dealt severely with a patch of them here 😉

    • I’m pleased to hear it’s the celandines that are the problem and not the physical affliction! There were a few celandines in the garden when I started but these were successfully removed leaving the chickweed, dandelions, mugwort, burdock, docks, creeping buttercup, corn marigolds, spear thistles and assorted other thugs to run riot through the borders!

  4. I didn’t know that about pilewort! How interesting. I too have managed to take celandine out of some of my borders leaving much more room for the couch grass and bindweed.

    • Pilewort was knew to me too. At least the celandines have pretty flowers which is more than can be said of some of the thuggish weeds.

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