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Spring's steadfast sentinel: the simple celandine

Friday 30 March 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard welcomes the arrival of a little flower which the poets ignored, and even the RHS dismisses as a weed, but which he believes is the true signal of spring

TWO or three weeks ago, I was passing a neighbour's well-kept front garden and saw with some astonishment that it was alive with snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses, all in full bloom at the same time. What, I asked myself, has happened to the seasons?

Time was just a few years ago when the snowdrops arrived in February, the daffs in March and the crocuses towards the end on March and into April. But with the papers and the telly screaming global warming, here was yet another sign that our fauna and flora don't know if they are on their heads or their roots.

Celendine: the golden star of spring
Photo: Royal Horticultural Society

At the beginning of this week, however - Sunday in fact - I noticed that an old favourite of mine had arrived, unloved and unannounced, but as ever on time. Spring really is here because the gold star of the English hedgerow, the humble celandine, has opened its glittering petals to the sun and there is hope for us yet amongst all the doom and gloom.

Now I should explain why the dates of the celandine's appearance is so etched in my memory and, surprise, surprise, it is connected with my passion for fly-fishing. You see, the trout season opens in the North West region of March 15, when I can fish rivers in Lancashire and Cumbria.

But the same season does not start until March 25 on Yorkshire rivers, which is rather like giving fanatics like me a second Christmas and New Year in early spring. And that's when the celendine comes in: it is rarely in full flower when I open the season in Cumbria - but always ten days later in the land of the broad acres.

Such accuracy I find reassuring: it is a flower I have waited for these past 50 years and, unlike the snowdrops and the daffs and the crocuses in my neighbour's garden, it is holding up two fingers to global warming and saying: "I will not be rushed."

This is quite an attitude for a flower that most people dismiss. Even the stern Royal Horticultural Society instructs its members how to deal with it as an intrusive "weed" - although it does admit it can be quite decorative on grassy banks.

Poor old Ranunculus ficaria, or lesser celendine, to give it its botanical name (not to be confused with Chelidonium majus, the celendine herb much used by American herbalists who claim it has aphrodisiacal qualities, which might be quite useful, I suppose, as the sap rises in spring).

if you are out and about this weekend, hum a little serenade to the simple celandine

As far as I know, no poet ever wrote an ode to this golden star of spring, yet there are stanzas galore to violets and roses. I can't recall any great painter committing it to canvas, either, although there have been a million and one still-lives of flowers.

And, thankfully, it has not become popular with gardeners, particularly the worst type of penny-pinching gardener who illegally raids the countryside for "free" plants like primroses, bluebells, fox gloves - and even rockery stone from the incredibly rare limestone pavements in the Yorkshire Dales.

Perhaps that's because the celandine spreads rapidly, as the RHS says, and such gardeners can't be bothered with chores such as weeding. But, whatever the reason, this means it still flourishes, regular as clockwork, in our hedgerows and alongside our streams and becks.

So, dear reader, if you are out and about this weekend, hum a little serenade to the simple celandine and delight in the contrasts of its brilliant gold petals against is deepest, irridescvent green foliage. Forget the weather man: spring has arrived. Ranunculus ficaria never gets it wrong!

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