A colony of lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) growing in the orchard below the south wall of Bonnefont garden.
The shining yellow flowers of lesser celandine star the grounds below Bonnefont garden in March and April, but the blossoms and the heart-shaped leaves of this spring ephemeral will disappear altogether by summer. The tuberous roots, which lie just beneath the surface of the soil, will remain dormant until the following spring. This invasive medieval species is not grown within the walls of The Cloisters, but has long been at home throughout the northeastern United States. (See the Ranunculus ficaria page of the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England website.)
A member of the buttercup family, the lesser celandine shares a common name with the botanically unrelated greater celandine, Chelidonium majus, a member of the poppy family. (For more on greater celandine, see “Swallow Wort,” May 6, 2011.)
The specific epithet “ficaria” refers to the use of the tubers in treating piles,??or “figs” as they were called??in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and Ranunculus ficaria?? is still commonly known as “pilewort” or “figwort.” The fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis characterizes lesser celandine as warm and dry in nature, and recommends its use as a poultice to reduce piles and alleviate the discomfort associated with them. The great sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard affirms the efficacy of “small celandine” mixed with wine for the purpose, but concludes his account by noting that some believed that merely carrying a piece of lesser celandine on the person would effect a cure.
A number of other plants with astringent properties were used to treat hemorrhoids, and it is not always certain whether a plant identified as “ficaria” in medieval sources is Ranunculus ficaria or another species prescribed for the same condition, such as Scrophularia nodosa. Both these species have been used not only to shrink piles, but also to reduce the swellings characteristic of scrofula, a tuberculosis of the lymph glands known in the Middle Ages as the King’s Evil.
In her compendium of healing plants, Physica, Hildegard of Bingen describes “ficaria” as cold and moist, and recommends it, cooked in wine, for those who suffer from burning fevers. Although Hildegard’s translator, Patricia Throop, has rendered “ficaria” as lesser celandine, another plant altogether may be intended. We are by no means certain of the botanical identity of all the plants described in medieval medical sources.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.