April: Lesser Celandine
Illustration: Greg Stevenson
Words: Mathew Clayton
Pilewort sounds like the name of a New Wave of Heavy Metal bands that Sounds championed in the 1980s, but is in fact a common name of the lesser celandine, a small yellow flower currently massing underneath hedgerows and along damp grass verges. A harbinger of spring it looks like a buttercup (and is a member of the same family), but has strangely lustrous yellow petals and heart-shaped leaves.
The suffix wort indicates a medicinal use. The piles bit is because its tubers look like piles and ridiculously people believed you could treat human illnesses with things found in the natural world that looked like the illness.
For such an unprepossessing flower, with such an unattractive common name, it has provided a surprising amount of inspiration for poets and writers. Although best known for his love of the daffodil Wordsworth actually preferred the celandine and wrote three poems praising its humble virtues. Including one that starts like this…
Pansies, lilies, kingcups, daisies,
Let them live upon their praises;
Long as there’s a sun that sets,
Primroses will have their glory;
Long as there are violets,
They will have a place in story:
There’s a flower that shall be mine,
‘Tis the little Celandine.
I am no poetry* expert but can you really rhyme daisies with praises without it being just a little bit annoying? When Wordsworth died the pre-Raphaelite sculptor and impressively bearded poet Thomas Woolner was commissioned to create a memorial in the local Grasmere church. It features a profile of Wordsworth where he looks like Mr Burns from the Simpsons and next to this is a celandine. Unfortunately it is the wrong celandine. Woolner depicted the greater celandine – wrong number of petals, different shaped leaves, flowers later in the year. This, just like the change of season the lesser celandine heralds, puts a smile on my face**.
*I want to like poetry more than I do like it. I am sure the Germans have a word for this – when your desire to enjoy something is greater than the enjoyment you actually get from it. Other things I would place in this category include: takeaway meals, watching football on TV, the films of Powell and Pressburger and most of France.
** The only other example of this kind of error that I have encountered is in the Sussex village of Ditchling. The type designer Eric Gill lived nearby and one of the houses is called Gill Sans after his famous font, but the sign displaying this name uses Times New Roman. Not just the wrong font but one with serifs. For many years i have quietly chuckled at the ignorance of the people who put up the sign, but more recently i have been wondering if it was a deliberate joke. Clever.