Lesser celandine is an extremely variable little perennial that spreads aggressively on fleshy underground tubers which are easily visible when the plant is pulled up. This harbinger of spring often forms dense mats of shiny green accented with yellow flowers. Lesser celandine has three or five lobed, sometimes heart shaped, basal leaves carried on two inch (5 cm) long erect to decumbent stems. The leaves are 1-2 in (1.25-2.5 cm) long and may or may not have toothed margins. They are shiny dark green, sometimes bearing silvery markings. The cup shaped flowers, appearing in late winter and early spring, are usually bright golden yellow and about an inch (2.5 cm) across. Their 8-12 petals fade to white as they age, and tend to fall off readily. The leaves usually die back after flowering too. Before the end of its season, lesser celandine often produces tiny cream colored bulblets in the axils of the leaf stems. A single plant can stand about 2 in (5 cm) tall and, with its long stemmed leaves, spread up to a foot (30 cm) across.
European Horticulturalists have named several dozen selections. ‘Bowles Double’ has double flowers with green centers; ‘Cupreus’ has orange flowers and silvery leaves; ‘Salmon’s White’ has leaves with bronze colored markings and flower petals that are cream colored on top and pale purple beneath; and ‘Flore Pleno’, which is less invasive than others, has double flowers with petals that are golden on top and greenish beneath.
Lesser celandine carpets a hillside in early spring.
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) is native to Europe, North Africa and SW Asia. It has escaped cultivation in the New World and now is naturalized in most of NE North America, from Quebec and Ontario south to North Carolina and Missouri. It is also established in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The species is rapidly expanding its range wherever the climate is cool and mesic, often growing profusely in floodplains, meadows, lawns and roadsides.
Culture Light: Lesser celandine grows best in partial to full shade. Moisture: Lesser celandine likes a moist soil, rich in organics. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 -8. Lesser celandine does its thing in the late winter and early spring. Then the flowers and leaves die back and you won’t be able to find it in the summer.
Propagation: The best ways to propagate this perennial are by picking and planting the little bulblets or dividing the tubers.
Individual lesser celandine plants grow to only 2 inches tall and about a foot in diameter but often form colonies that can carpet large areas.
Buttercups are usually grown in the flower bed or under semi-natural conditions in the woodland garden. Lesser celandine completes its growth and flowering in spring before most plants have leafed out, and is thus well suited for growing under deciduous trees and shrubs.
There are more than 400 species of buttercups worldwide including a couple dozen species native to North America, any of which would be a better choice for Yankee gardeners than the invasive lesser celandine.
The word celandine comes originally from the Greek for swallow, because the plant’s springtime emergence was believed to announce the return of the swallows.
The Lesser Celandine by William Wordsworth
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!
When hailstones have been falling, swarm on swarm,
Or blasts the green field and the trees distressed,
Oft have I seen it muffled up from harm,
In close self-shelter, like a Thing at rest.
But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed,
And recognized it, though an altered form,
Now standing forth an offering to the blast,
And buffeted at will by rain and storm.
I stopped, and said, with inly-muttered voice,
"It doth not love the shower, nor seek the cold:
This neither is its courage nor its choice,
But its necessity in being old.
"The sunshine may not cheer it, nor the dew;
It cannot help itself in its decay;
Stiff in its members, withered, changed of hue."
And, in my spleen, I smiled that it was grey.
To be a Prodigal's Favourite -then, worse truth,
A Miser's Pensioner -behold our lot!
O Man, that from thy fair and shining youth
Age might but take the things Youth needed not!
Lesser celandine is an invasive European weed and can be a serious pest. It often forms dense patches in floodplain forests and other moist sites, smothering and displacing native species. Even the named cultivars can be invasive. The cultivation and sale of lesser celandine are prohibited in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Enjoy lesser celandine where it grows, but don’t plant it in your garden.