The “lesser celandine” (Ficaria verna, Ranunculus ficaria L.) used to be considered an aid against scurvy. The plant has a high content of vitamin C!
Occurrence and distribution: Typically the lesser celandine can be found in sparse forests, floodplain forests, unter shrubbery and on meadows. It can also be found in overgrown gardens. There, the lesser celandine forms large carpets of leaves and flowers by itself. It is naturally found in northern and central Europe. In the Alps, the plant also occurs at an altitude of up to 1,800 metres.
Growth habit: The plant is low-growing, close to the ground. It also forms roots at the nodes between the individual plant parts. Every year, the underground reproductive organs (root tubers) are newly formed. This is where the plant’s nutrient reserves are formed. The root tubers have a fig-like shape. The plant can reach a height of 5 to 20 cm. In spring, the lesser celandine is often one of the first plants to produce leaves, even before the trees do.
Leaves: The green, heart-shaped leaves develop in early spring before the blossoms. They have a very shiny top and no hairs on the surface. More rarely, the leaves have blunt ridges. They retract again in may / june. After the blossoms have developed, slightly toxic substances are produced in the leaves.
Blossoms: The blossoms are composed of many individual, shiny yellow petals. The flower has a radial structure and can can reach a size of up to 20 mm. Inside the blossom there are 8 to 12 yellow nectary leaves. The petals are ovate / elongated. The flowering period ranges from march to may.
Fruits & reproduction: Only a few seeds are formed from the flowers. The plants reproduce via small brood buds that form under the leaves. The brood buds are only the size of a grain of wheat.
Use as a medicinal plant
Earlier use as a substitute for flour: In times of need, the brood buds (which sit in the leaf axils of the plant) could be processed into flour. They contain a lot of starch and have a slightly nutty taste. Scientific evidence for this cannot be provided or is probably difficult to provide. The author Rudi Beiser and the alternative practitioner Eva Marbach, among others, refer to the use of the plant. Experiential knowledge can also be found with Michael Machatscheks book: Nahrhafte Landschaft (Nutritious Landscape).
Use in food: The finely chopped leaves can be used in herb mixtures, herbal cheeses and salads. They are also sometimes used in various vegetable dishes. When dry, the leaves can also be added to herbal salts.
Use as a medicinal plant: Due to its high vitamin C content, the lesser celandine was once used as a remedy for scurvy – a vitamin C deficiency disease that used to be widespread. Another use of the plant is as a remedy for “spring fatigue”. IMPORTANT: The leaves of the plant should only be collected before the flowers blossom and only should be used in small quantities. The leaves and roots contain, among other things, toxic pungents, which are present in greater quantities during and after flowering.
Ingredients: Anemonin, asparagine, enzyme urease, tannin, protoanemonin, ranunculin, saponins, vitamin C.
When can I start collecting the plant: As a general rule they are best used before flowering, in early spring. Not after that! In most literature, the time of use is from march to april. However, it may only be collected if you are really sure that it is not another plant. To distinguish it from other plants, see also the section: Risk of confusion.
Slightly poisonous plant – Handling advice
Toxicity of the plant to humans: Small amounts of the poison “protoanemonin” can be detected in the leaves of the lesser celandine. This substance tastes very bitter and burns sharply on the tongue. It is produced more frequently when the plant is blooming. Under no circumstances should the lesser celandine be consumed fresh or dried in large quantities.
Toxicity of the plant for animals: For animals, the plant is also slightly poisonous in larger quantities (for horses – approx. 2 kg or 3 kg). The substances in the plant affect the skin and mucous membranes (especially in the mouth and digestive tract). They also have an effect on the central nervous system in that they first have an energising and later a paralysing effect. Larger amounts can also cause liver and kidney damage.
LD50 for cattle: 120 – 200 mg protoanemonin per kg body weight.
Symptoms of intoxication: In case of poisoning with the lesser celandine, vomiting and diarrhoea may occur due to the substances contained. A further side effect is irritation of the mucous membranes in the mouth and throat.
First aid in case of intoxication: Consult a doctor or call the poison control centre!
Risk of confusion: Especially the young leaves of the lesser celandine resemble those of the moderately poisonous hazelwort. However, the older leaves of the hazelwort are considerably larger than those of the lesser celandine! The hazelwort is very rare except in Austria (nevertheless, it is not entirely uncommon to find larger quantities of the plant). It is best to scout out the collection sites the year before to avoid confusion.
Folk names & Origin of name
Folk names: The lesser celandine is known by various names. In the region around Würzburg the plant is known as “Gockeler” (rooster? not sure why this name exists). Because of its fig-like roots, the plant is sometimes also called ” Feigwurz” (figwort) in the folklore. Other popular names are “Mäusebrot (from the small fruits), Goldblümli, Sonnenblümli, Sternblümlein, Butterblätter” and many more.
Origin of name: The genus name “Ranunculus ficaria” originates from the medieval name “Ficaria”. This can be derived from the Latin name ‘herba ficaria’. The name refers to the shape of the root tubers. The German name ” Scharbockskraut” (= scurvy) is derived from its use against scurvy, which used to be called “Scharbock” (= scurvy).
Interesting old tales: Due to the many breeding bulbs on the plants, a “wheat rain” can sometimes occur. In this case, the small bulbs are washed together in larger quantities by the rain. Proof of this can be found in Losch “Kräuterbuch – Unsere Heilpflanzen in Wort und Bild” (1914).
Endangerment of the plant
Endangerment of the plant: On the Red List of Threatened Species, this plant is classified as “not endangered” in Germany.
Distribution codes: A, AV, M1, M2, F, K