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Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria, syn. Ficaria grandiflora Robert, Ficaria verna Huds.) is a low-growing, hairless perennial plant, with fleshy dark green, heart-shaped leaves. The plant is found throughout Europe and west Asia and is now introduced in North America. It prefers bare, damp ground and in the UK it is often a persistent garden weed. The flowers are orange, turning yellow as they age.
Ranunculus ficaria exists in both diploid (2n=16) and tetraploid (2n=32) forms which are very similar in appearance. However, the tetraploid type prefer more shady locations and frequently develops bulbils at the base of the stalk. These two variants are sometimes referred to as distinct sub-species, R. ficaria ficaria and R. ficaria bulbifer respectively.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, celandine comes from the Latin chelidonia, meaning swallow: it was said that the flowers bloomed when the swallows returned and faded when they left. The name Ranunculus is Late Latin for "little frog," from rana "frog" and a diminutive ending. This probably refers to many species being found near water, like frogs.
According to Gilbert White, a diarist writing around 1800 in the Hampshire village of Selborne, the plants came out on February 21, but it is more commonly reported to flower from March until May, and is sometimes called the "spring messenger" as a consequence.
The plant used to be known as Pilewort because it was used to treat haemorrhoids. Supposedly, the knobbly tubers of the plant resemble piles, and according to the doctrine of signatures this resemblance suggests that pilewort could be used to cure piles. The German vernacular Scharbockskraut ("Scurvyherb") derives from the use of the early leaves, which are high in vitamin C, to prevent scurvy. The plant is widely used in Russia and is sold in most pharmacies as a dried herb.
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