Spring Messenger

“Spring is coming, Thou art come!” wrote William Wordsworth in his poem To The Small Celandine. He was delighted by the arrival of this flower, which promised the return of the sun “when we’ve little warmth, or none.” It may be an annoyingly persistent weed to some gardeners, but it is said to have been one of the poet’s favourite flowers. In the Victorian Language of Flowers Ficaria verna carried the message “joys to come”. Appearing “’Ere a leaf is on a bush,/In the time before the Thrush/Has a thought about its nest”, it is one of the rare flashes of colour in the hedges and wild borders of late winter, on the edge of spring. Primroses pale beside it.   

The Lesser Celandine’s country names speak of intensity and power: Brighteye, Crazy Bet, Crazy Cup, Golden Cups, Golden Stars, Spring Messenger, Powerwort. This flower, bold yet diminutive, is a botanical oxymoron. D.H.  Lawrence writes of them “pressed back in urgency and the yellow glitter of themselves,” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Growing low and small, they open a few hours after sunrise and close as the afternoon light fades. As the petals draw in, the green undersides extinguish the flowers’ light, concealing their bright presence. Wordsworth understood the Lesser Celandine’s contradictory nature very well. It is one of those familiar plants whose name often escapes us. But once you tune into these impish stars, they appear everywhere. The poet seems to have spent considerable energy acknowledging the flower, once he had put a name to the face:

Modest, yet withal an Elf
Bold, and lavish of thyself;
Since we needs must first have met
I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
’Twas a face I did not know;
Thou hast now, go where I may,
Fifty greetings in a day. 

Ficaria verna (the Latin name means spring fig) is also known as pilewort. Its tubers were dug up in May or June and used in a herbal ointment against haemorrhoids. This use grew from the Law of Signatures, which told that the appearance of a flower or herb might suggest its medicinal use. Its underground tubers do indeed resemble piles, and the plant has an astringent action like other popular remedies for haemorrhoids, such as witch hazel. Mrs Grieve, writing her Herbal in the early 1930’s mentions that it was “considered almost a specific” for piles and had been recently reintroduced to the British Pharamacopoeia after centuries of herbal use.

Images:

Main: Kerner, J.S., Abbildungen aller ökonomischen Pflanzen (1786-1798)

Sturm, J.W., Deutschlands flora (1798-1855) vol. 3 (1801)

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