Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Pilewort and the Doctrine of Signatures

The  Pilewort, better known as the Lesser Celandine, is a member of the Buttercup Family and is placed in the genus Ranunculus. It is not typically buttercup-like in appearance and Hudson placed in a separate genus, calling it Ficaria verna. Whatever botanists call it, its bright yellow, glossy  petals make it one of the best-known of spring flowers. (One old name for the plant was Golden Guineas.) 

Putting a gloss on it
The flowers are clearly designed for insect pollination and the yellow petals play a part - but not necessarily in the obvious way. Arctic buttercups have bowl-shaped flowers with glossy petals and it has been shown that the gloss deflects sunlight into the centre of the flower, helping to raise the temperature significantly and so encourage insect visits. Celandines flower early in the year when days are often chilly and it is tempting to suggest that they also offer a little warmth to would-be pollinators.

Tuberous roots on Celandine. 29 January, 2013

The roots bear a number of small, finger-like tubers, fancifully resembling haemorrhoids, earning the plant its old name of Pilewort. According to my 1923 edition of "Potter's "Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations", the tubers were indeed used as a treatment for piles, with an infusion of 1 ounce in 1 pint of boiling water, taken in "wineglassful doses", being recommended. Efficacious? Possibly, but all buttercups are acrid, poisonous and dangerous to cattle; I'd rather learn to live with a sore bum!  

I generally find it growing in rather wet ground, often by the side of streams, and John Clare clearly found it in similar situations:

                        How bright Pilewort blazes
                        Where ruddled sheep rubs
                        The old willow trunk by the side of the brook
                        Where soon for wild violets the children will look!

                                                 Clare's "Asylum poems".

The pile-like tubers were regarded in medieval times as a sign from God that the plant was to be used medicinally - although the doctrine dates back to pre-Christian times. According to this "Doctrine of Signatures" a plant will bear a clue, indicative of its use to man. Thus Pulmonaria officinalis has leaves blotched like diseased lungs, hence the common name of Lungwort; Viola tricolor has heart-shaped leaves suggesting it is helpful in the case of heart problems and the plant is known as Heart's Ease; the word "orchid" comes from the Greek orchis meaning "testicle" (from the shape of the root-tubers) and these tubers were used as an aphrodisiac in ancient times. There are many such cases.

The celandines in my garden will be open ere long, thus beating the arrival of the swallows; "celandine" is derived from the Greek chelidon - a swallow, as they were supposed to flower with the appearance of swallows. The Greater Celandine, Chelidonium majus is only distantly related, being put into a separate family. It is common around Byfield and, being of considerable interest, merits a separate blog

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