If you are suffering through this dreary spring in a deciduous environment, you might recognize the flower I am featuring today. It is the lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), a close relative of the buttercup. The lesser celandine has quite a history, ecologically and artistically, so I will try to feature both sides of the story.
You should hate this flower because it is an invasive species! Originating in Europe, it has become established in Northeastern US and Canada. You can find it in the spring coating the banks of invaded streams and rivers (like my local Bronx River), forming yellow and green blankets, sprouting up and blooming before most of the natives have had a chance to get started. A sleepy pollinator, like a honeybee, who makes her way to the river looking for a nice variety of spring flowers to wake its hive from winter slumber will find only celandines for her nectar meal. It’s like going to Chipotle and the only thing they offer to put in your tortilla is chicken nuggets. Imagine how disappointed you would be!
Though we may treat it like nasty chicken nuggets, the celandine is not inherently bad, of course. In its native English habitat, the celandine has predators and competitors to keep it in check, and it is known as a much-loved herald of spring, not a despised invader. In fact, the celandine has not one, but THREE poems dedicated to it by one of the most celebrated poets in the english language, William Wordsworth. In chronological order: To the Small Celandine, To the same flower, and The Small Celandine. Fortunately, the poems are much more creative and interesting than the titles. Wordsworth is known for his use of daffodils (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud), but his treatment of celandines is considerable. Being among the first-emerging flowers in the spring make them a convenient symbol for the triumph of life after the bleakness of winter. C.S. Lewis uses celandines similarly, notably in the crucial passage in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when Aslan brings spring back to Narnia. In the Lord of the Rings, celandines are one of the last flowers that Sam and Frodo see before they leave Gondor and begin to cross into Mordor. In this section, though, the celandines are white and “closed for sleep”, perhaps signifying that hope is gone for the hobbits. Or perhaps signifying that it is dusk. I was always bad at deconstructionism. In any case, I think it is very interesting that the character that made the celandine so popular with writers is the very thing that has made it so disliked by conservationists. To writers, it is a brave pioneer showing its cheery face to winter’s back, to conservationists it’s an opportunistic sneaker that is a pain in the ass to get rid of.
What happens when human aesthetic conflicts with environmental integrity? Is beauty a good enough reason to cause environmental degradation? Often the answer is yes. Offhand I can think of a few examples.
- Beaches. Heathy beaches are oft-changing, strewn with biological jetsam, and overall not the sterile sunbathing experience many desire. So beach managers clean the dead plants and animals, and bring in tons and tons of sand to supplement the shores.
- Lawns. Modern lawns are biological deserts; monocultures of castrated grass with few invertebrates or competitors to speak of. But perhaps the human eye enjoys this uniformity, because lawn retain their popularity.
- The introduction of the common starling (Sternus vulgaris) is a popular tale also of an invasive species and its literary history. The American Acclimatization Society in 1890 introduced the starling to New York as part of their effort to bring every bird in Shakespeare’s works to America. It is now considered a damaging invasive species, as it spreads invasive plants, damages crops, and competes with native birds for nesting sites.
- Ornamentals. Many of the worst invasive plants were originally brought in as ornamentals. My study species, Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) was thought to be an attractive garden plant, though that thought was quickly tempered when gardeners saw how hard it was to eliminate.
So how do we deal with invasive species? How do we reconcile the competition between human desires and things we know are better for the environment. Perhaps it is something as small as dealing with some smelly kelp on our beaches every now and then. Perhaps it is something as big as changing human aesthetic to favor diversity over uniformity, creating art that celebrates the disorder that is often healthy to nature.
On Wordsworth’s memorial plaque in a church in Grasmere, England, there is an inscription:
TO THE MEMORY OF WILLIAM WORDSWORTH. A TRUE PHILOSOPHER AND POET, WHO BY THE SPECIAL GIFT AND CALLING OF ALMIGHTY GOD, WHETHER HE DISCOURSED ON MAN OR NATURE, FAILED NOT TO LIFT UP THE HEART TO HOLY THINGS, TIRED NOT OF MAINTAINING THE CAUSE OF THE POOR AND SIMPLE: AND SO IN PERILOUS TIMES WAS RAISED UP TO BE A CHIEF MINISTER NOT ONLY OF NOBLEST POESY, BUT OF HIGH AND SACRED TRUTH. THIS MEMORIAL IS PLACED HERE BY HIS FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS IN TESTIMONY OF RESPECT, AFFECTION, AND GRATITUDE. ANNO 1851.
Below the inscription there is a carving of Wordsworth’s head, and his favorite flowers: the daffodil, the snowdrop, the violet, and the celandine. Unfortunately, the person who carved the plaque got a picture of the greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), of which Wordsworth has never written a word, instead of the lesser. Perhaps the lesson here is not that, more than anything, we need to understand more about our natural world no matter what we choose to do with it. So perhaps you should not hate this little flower. But you should know about it.