Issue No. 159 - April 10, 2005
by Sue Sweeney
Pure and simple, lesser celandine is not marsh
I've never seen a real marsh marigold, except in
a pot. This endangered native treasure of the sunny
spring wetland continues to allude me. I wish that I
could say the same for the highly invasive
look-a-like European cousin, the lesser celandine
a/k/a fig buttercup a/k/a Ranunculus ficaria.
Indeed, one of the reasons that I may never see a
marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is
because the lesser celandine crowds out the marsh
marigolds and other delicate native spring
wildflowers like rue anemone, hepatica, bloodroot,
Dutchman's breeches, trout lily, and Virginia
bluebells that are trying to co-exist in the same
environment. Lesser celandine is so bad that the US
Geological Survey, not exactly an organization known
for hyperbole, calls it a "travesty".
|picture: lesser celandine along 3rd
Street, Stamford CT, Spring 2004
Lesser celandine still seems to be a valued
wildflower in England and Ireland, but in northern
U.S. and southern Canada, it is an infestation.
Lesser celandine's leaves emerge in the form
of a basal rosette (circle of leaves close
to the plant's base) in late winter; the
flowers follow in early spring. As the
flowers bloom, tiny bullets form along the
stem. By June, the flowers are gone and the
plants are dying back into the ground to
escape summer heat and drought. The bulblets
are left to add to the carpet, becoming
underground food-storing tubers. Marsh
marigolds, and most other self-respecting
native forest/stream wildflowers, emerge a
bit later which gives lesser celandine the
edge in competing for resources.
some of the bulblets get carried away by
flooding to start new colonies,
lesser celandine is primarily spread by
human gardeners, including those
who innocently dig up some of the pretty
plant from along the road and take it home
to ruin their lawns. Believe it or not,
lesser celandine cultivars are still widely
sold! Please don't buy them, and please tell
the nursery that you wish that they would
stop stocking invasive plants.
|picture: lesser celandine having taken
over a waste space next to a parking lot, 3rd Street,
Stamford CT, Spring 2004
Both lesser celandine and marsh marigold are
low-growing with shiny green, rounded
leaves, and big, shiny buttercup flowers.
There are subtle differences in the
appearance but the main way to tell them
apart is by behavior. If you come across an
entire yard, stream-side or forest thickly
carpeted with the stuff, it is lesser
celandine. Marsh marigolds grow in mannerly
clumps; it doesn't take over.
|picture: lesser celandine annoying the
skunk cabbage, along the Mill River at Scalzi Park, Stamford
CT. Spring 2004
Unfortunately, by the time you have a major
carpet of lesser celandine, you almost can't
get rid of it. Small clumps can be hand
pulled and persistent hand pulling can be
successful but you're talking about years of
dedicated stoop-labor. Note, though, that
you have to get every last bit. If you leave
any of the tubers or bulblets, they'll
flourish in the ground that you disturbed
when digging the main plant. Unless you come
back, year after year, to dig out the
progeny, the end result will be more plants
than before the soil was disturbed.
Even more sadly, any of the more drastic
eradication measures, such as sterilizing
the ground with a black plastic cover (see
Issue 110), are as likely to wipe out the
plants that you're trying to save as well as
the bad guy.
Some forest custodians have been reported
to be trying a broad-leaf weed killer
application before other spring treasurers
emerge. This, though, raises all the
problems and questions about use of
pesticides; and there are many of us who
believe that the cure is invariably worse
for the planet then the original problem.
There is no known biological control that
won't also wipe out the good guys.
In case you come across a small clump of
buttercup yellow-flowered something and are
trying to determine whether it is one of the
good guys, here are some of the more subtle
differences between lesser celandine and
--Lesser celandine generally has 8 petals
(can be to up to 12) or is double-flowered;
marsh marigold has 5 to 9 petals (actually
sepals, if you're a botanist).
--Lesser celandine has kidney to heart
shaped leaves; marsh marigold leaves are
rounded to kidney shaped.
--Lesser celandine make bulblets along the
stem and has an underground tuber; marsh
marigold does not.
--Lesser celandine tends to grow a foot or
less in height: marsh marigold can get to be
2 feet tall.
--Lesser celandine has been hybridized to
include varieties with variegated leaves and
What can you do? Save some of the
endangered wildflowers by planting them in
your garden instead of the invasive ones. Of
curse, never ever collect endangered plants
from the wild and buy only from reputable
dealers who grow their own stock from,
hopefully organic seed.
|picture: lesser celandine taking over a
garden on Chester Street in Stamford CT April 2005
|BTW: What is greater celandine, you ask. The real
celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a biannual herb in
the poppy family from Europe and Asian, historically used
for medical purposes (but not generally proven to be
effective and has raised questions about possible extreme
side effects like liver damage). Celandine's naturalized in
woodland areas in northern U.S. and southern Canada. It does
co-exist with others, so it is not considered a particular
threat to native flora (at least at this time).
|picture: detail of lesser celandine, 3rd
Street, Stamford CT, Spring 2004