Greater Celandine, Swallow-wort – Flowers

(Chelidonium majus) Poppy family

Flowers—Lustreless yellow, about in. across, on slender pedicels, in a small umbel-like cluster. Sepals 2, soon falling ; 4 petals, many yellow stamens, pistil prominent. Stem : Weak, I to 2 ft. high, branching, slightly hairy, containing bright orange acrid juice. Leaves : Thin, 4 to 8 in. long, deeply cleft into 5 (usually) irregular oval lobes, the terminal one largest. Fruit: Smooth, slender, erect pods, 1 to 2 in. long, tipped with the persistent style.

Preferred Habitat—Dry waste land, fields, roadsides, gardens, near dwellings.

Flowering Season—April—September.

Distribution—Naturalized from Europe in Eastern United States.

Not this weak invader of our roadsides, whose four yellow petals suggest one of the cross-bearing mustard tribe, but the pert little Lesser Celandine, Pilewort, or Figwort Buttercup (Ficaria Ficaria), one of the Crowfoot family, whose larger solitary satiny yellow flowers so commonly star European pastures, was Wordsworth’s special delight—a tiny, turf-loving plant, about which much poetical association clusters. Having stolen passage across the Atlantic, it is now making itself at home about College Point, Long Island; on Staten Island; near Philadelphia, and maybe elsewhere. Doubtless it will one day overrun our fields, as so many other European immigrants have done.

The generic Greek name of the greater celandine, meaning a swallow, was given it because it begins to bloom when the first returning swallows are seen skimming over the water and freshly ploughed fields in a perfect ecstasy of flight, and continues in flower among its erect seed capsules until the first cool days of autumn kill the gnats and small winged insects not driven to cover. Then the swallows, dependent on such fare, must go to warmer climes where plenty still fly. Quaint old Gerarde claims that the swallow-wort was so called because ” with this herbe the dams re-store eye-sight to their young ones when their eye be put out” by swallows. Coles asserts ” the swallow cureth her dim eyes with celandine.”

There can be little satisfaction in picking a weed which droops immediately, poppy fashion, and whose saffron juice stains whatever it touches. A drop of this acrid fluid on the tip of the tongue is not soon forgotten. The luminous experiments of Darwin, Lubbock, Wallace, Muller, and Sprengel, among others, have proved that color in flowers exists for the purpose of attracting insects. But how about colored juices in the blood-roots’ and poppies’ stems, for example ; the bright stalk of the pokeweed, the orange-yellow root of the carrot, the exquisite tints of autumn leaves, fungi, and sea-weed ? Besides the green color (chlorophyll), the most necessary of all ingredients to a plant (see p. 234) are the lipochromes, which vary from yellow to red. These are most conspicuous when they displace the chlorophyll in autumn foliage. Then there are the anthocyans, ranging from magenta to blue and violet. These vary according to the amount of acid or alkali in the sap. Try the effect of immersing a blue morning glory in an acid solution, or a deep pink one in an alkaline solution. One theory to account for the presence of color is that it exists to screen the plant’s protoplasm from light ; that it has a physiological function with which insects have nothing whatever to do ; and that by its presence the temperature is raised and the plant is protected from cold. Every one who has handled the colorless Indian pipe knows how cold and clammy it is.

The Yellow or Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), with shining yellow flowers double the size of the greater celandine’s, and similar pinnatifid leaves springing chiefly from the base, blooms even in March and through the spring in the Middle States and westward to Wisconsin and Missouri. Usually only one of the few terminal blossoms opens at a time, but in low, open woodlands it gleams like a miniature sun. Alas! that the glorious California Poppy, so commonly grown in Eastern gardens (Eschscholtzia Californica), should confine itself to a limited range on the Pacific Coast. We have no true native pop-pies (Papaver) in America ; such as are rarely to be seen in a wild state, have only locally escaped from cultivation.