Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When drinking tea was the first step in botanical education...

When the frogs return to our garden pond (which they did yesterday) and the first lesser celandine comes into flower in the garden (which it also did yesterday - here it is, above), then as far as I'm concerned the fuse of spring has been lit. 

Lesser celandines may be commonplace but they are also remarkably variable flowers - in name as well as form. 

When I first started learning to recognise wild flowers, from Charles Tunnicliffe's illustrations on Brooke Bond tea cards in the early 1960s, I though there was just one form of what was then known as Ranunculus ficaria

Collecting full sets of these tea cards involved nagging parents and relatives into drinking prodigious volumes of tea and engaging in a complex system of swapping duplicates with school friends with similar interests. In those days field guides with coloured illustrations of wild flowers were few and far between - and expensive - so there must have been a generation of botanists who cut their teeth on field identification skills using these free gifts in packets of tea.

The process of learning about the natural world is one of discovering that what you thought was correct is either simply wrong or a gross oversimplification and I later learned that there are at least two forms of lesser celandine - the bog-standard version that reproduces with seeds and one with twice the normal number of chromosomes that produces few seeds but clones itself prolifically by producing clusters of small, white tuber-like bulbils, that look rather like grains of rice, at the base of the leaves close to the soil surface. The latter is the one I have in the garden and I've transported its bulbils to every corner of our plot in the mud on my gardening boots. 

These days the Latin name of the plant has changed too, so the Ranunculus ficaria that I learned from those tea cards in my youth is now Ficaria verna and is divided into as many as four subspecies by some botanists. Still, to misquote Shakespeare, a celandine by any other name would look as cheerful on a blustery, cold early spring day.

Lesser celandine flowers are remarkably variable and some forms have found their was into cultivation ...

....... like this copper-coloured one ( cv. cupreus) with pointed petals .....

..... this double-flowered one (cv. flore pleno) where all the stamens and ovaries are converted into extra petals, so that it resembles a miniature yellow water lily .....

...... and the purple-leaved form that looks dismal against bare soil in spring until it flowers and provides a startling contrast to the bright yellow flowers.

There are lesser celandines all over our garden in spring but soon after flowering they die away completely and disappear for another year - but not before the leaves have been attacked by celandine clustercup fungus, Uromyces dactylidis, whose first symptoms are pale blotches on the leaves but which later produces these colourful cupules of orange spores. It's a fungal disease of celandines that seems to have become more prevalent around here in recent years.

If celandines are left undisturbed they can produce a fine display of flowers in spring - like these in the Bishop of Durham's deer park at Auckland Castle at Bishop Auckland in Durham, photographed last spring.

Celandines look quite different to a visiting insect than they do to a human - for an insect's eye-view click here.

They also produce remarkably extensive root systems in later winter - click here.


  1. "Bog-standard", or just "damp environment-standard"? They're very welcome, either way.

  2. Phil, as always reading your posts are an education. I'm after that clustercup fungus later in the year!

  3. I am frequently overwhelmed by how much there is, still, to learn and how little time is left. Another excellent post Phil, thank you.

  4. Phil, As always I learn form following your blog. Today you make me jealous speaking of frogs and flowers. It won't happen here along the shore of Lake Michigan for many weeks yet! See you soon. Jack

  5. Bother. I think I'm just going to call them 'yellow flowers' from now on. They can go in with the 'yellow flowers' which I used to call 'dandelions' till I realised there are lots of different kinds of them too.

    I'll have to rummage around at the back of my cupboard. I don't have flowers on tea-cards, but I do have butterflies. I'll seek them out.

  6. Great post Phil.
    The 'tea cards' were a great introduction to nature. What do the kids of today have I wonder?

  7. Point taken Graeme - our garden is a bit claggy in places..

  8. Hi Steve, I'm becoming increasingly aware of the variety of rust fungi - interesting, aren't they? Cheers, Phil

  9. I know what you mean toffeeapple - the closer you look, the more interesting it gets!

  10. Hello Jack, the long run-up to spring is a frustrating time isn't it. Every day you look for the signs, then it all seems to happen so quickly! All the best, Phil

  11. Hi Lucy, We've got boxes of them up in the roof, plus some cigarette cards that belonged to by father - including a rather nice set from W.D. & H.O. Wills on Seashore Life that belonged to his father - I'll post some pictures when I can find it.

  12. I guess the Internet has taken over as far as kids are concerned, Keith .....