Monday, April 27, 2009

LOVELY INVADER

There is a Flower, the Lesser Celandine, That shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain; And, the first moment that the sun may shine, Bright as the sun himself, 'tis out again!
—William Wordsworth, “The Lesser Celandine”
For the past week or so, the corridor woods along the river have been a’gleam with the bright cadmium yellow blooms of lesser celandine. A yellow so intense that shadowy sycamore glades seem to glow. The island across from the cottage appears carpeted, as if thickly spread with mustard. Some folks mistakenly identify lesser celandine as buttercup. While the two plants have similar vibrant yellow blossoms, buttercup tends to grow in more restricted clumps; lesser celandine spreads all over like a low ground cover. Lesser celandine was Wordsworth’s favorite wildflower. He wrote three poems extolling its virtues and requested its image be carved on his tombstone. Unfortunately, when it came time for the old bard to be laid to rest, the stonemason got it wrong, mistakenly depicting instead greater celandine, a member of the poppy family whose leaves and flowers look nothing like the poet’s beloved plant. Lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, prefers damp woodlands and timbered floodplains. The same locations where you’ll find bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauty, rue anemone, and a host of other favorite Buckeye wildflowers. Several states now classify lesser celandine as an “invasive,” because it’s early seasonal emergence and dense growth tendencies can smother out many of our native spring ephemerals—though when I took a walk along the riverside below the cottage earlier this morning, I found trout lily and patches of Virginia bluebell blooming happily amidst the celandine swathes. Personally, as invasive plant threats go, I’ll take lesser celandine over dastardly bush honeysuckle any day. By the middle of May, the vivid yellow blooms and shiny green leaves will all be gone. The riverine woods will dim, turn shadowy. And not until the great seasonal wheel turns full circle once more, and another April appears, will these lovely little invaders brighten our spring.

30 comments:

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I love these plants too, there is a fairyland-like quality to their carpeting in the woods.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Raph…

Yes, you are exactly right—there is an almost magical storybook quality to their appearance. The bright blooms really light up the streamside woods around here.

KGMom said...

Scribe--thanks for the wee bit of literary history in the midst of your nature reverie. Wonder what Wordsworth would say, were he to know of the mistake? When we visited Lake Country in England a decade ago, we went to Wordsworth's house, where his sister also lived. The natural beauty in the area makes it easy to understand why he wrote as he did about natural beauty.
Lovely pics--it's a wonder you can muster the time to write. I'd be out walking all day.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

I envy you your visit to Wordsworth's countryside. If I'm not mistaken, didn't he and his sister live in a stone cottage? I seem to recall some photos from an article I clipped a while back. I also have a little book (apparent;y buried among some of the boxes of books I've yet to get onto shelves) regarding Wordsworth the naturalist in which it talks about his fondness for lesser celandine. I believe his sister mentions it as well in her writings. Of course most folks connect Wordsworth to daffodils, for which, the area is said to be justly famous.

As to what he'd make of the mistake…disappointed, displeased? I don't know. Some of my Celtic ancestors, if it happened to them, would doubtless haunt the gravesite and put some sort of curse on the stonemason.

It is lovely here—especially now—and I do often have trouble keeping my butt on the chair and working instead of walking.

Rowan said...

I love celandines too, here they often grow with the wood anenomes and they look lovely together. If you'd like to see Wordsworth's cottage I did a post about it on my blog when we visited in 2007. Title is 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' if you want to see it. It includes a photo of his gravestone which doesn't appear to have anything carved on it apart from names and dates for him and his wife. It may be on the other side of the stone, I'll try and check next time we go to Grasmere.

The Solitary Walker said...

I love the lesser celandine too - and saw plenty in Duke's Wood on Saturday.

Check out 'Wordsworth' under my LABELS widget on the R hand side of my blog and you'll find a photo of Rydal Mount, one of Wordsworth's homes for 40 years. His other Lakeland home was Dove Cottage, nearby in Grasmere - a much-visited tourist spot.

I've seen the Wordsworth graves in Grasmere churchyard. The whole area is stunningly beautiful - popular, but you can always climb the surrounding fells and escape the summer holiday coaches.

Wordsworth is one of my very favourite poets - love 'The Prelude', and all the well known poems, though not all he wrote was first-rate.

Rowan said...

I've just been having another look at my photos and a)it was 2008 when we went so my mind is obviously going too! and b) there is another large flat stone among the Wordsworth graves with what appears to be all the family names on it and there could concievably be some sort of carving of a plant at the top. It's too poor a photo to be able to tell properly though. Shall investigate further at some stage!

Carolyn H said...

Griz: So far, that's one invasive plant I don't have in my woods. They are pretty, too.

Carolyn H.

Grace said...

Those are beautiful pictures. Are they native to your area? Or does the fact that they're invasive mean no?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

Hey, I doubt your "mind is going" if all you did was got the dates of your visit and posting wrong.

On the other hand, I got to wondering whether in my case it was my mind or just my research that was at fault. I'm not quite to the point where I can hide my own Easter eggs…but there are days when I think I see that bus stop ahead.

I’ve just read your lovely posting on Wordsworth (and also became sidetracked for about an hour looking and reading many of your other postings, BTW!) and examined your excellent photos, including the ones of his gravestone. I’m sure there’s no celandine—lesser or greater—depicted thereon.

Soooo…where did the business about having the “wrong celandine” carved on his grave marker originate? During my research on lesser celandine (not Wordsworth per se) I found this same statement repeated in various biographical side-references re. the poet and his fondness for lesser celandine. And, of course, I glibly repeated it myself.

Subsequent research (this time on Wordsworth) may have uncovered the answer. First off, though, let me say lesser celandine was indeed Wordsworth’s favorite wildflower—that fact I had right, at least according to his sister Dorothy in her journal.

Now, to forge ahead…

It seems immediately following Wordsworth’s death in April, 1850, there began a great and long-lasting discussion re. what should or should not be erected to memorialize the late poet—such plaques, stones, obelisks, etc. to be placed at the grave, nearby church, adjacent grounds, and elsewhere. There were raging opinions among those who knew him, family, friends, gentry and commoner, and would-be or merely hopeful eulogists. This is all further tied in with various social/theological aspects of the era, and the way in which the old “nature poets,” of which Wordsworth was considered the greatest and last, should be remembered at their burial site and elsewhere.

Believe it or not, there have been long, dense, and virtually unreadable (by me, anyway) doctoral theses and literary monographs written on this Wordsworth memorial conflict. To quote one such paper, “The grave’s memorial pre-eminence is particularly apparent when contrasted with the public memorials erected in Grasmere Church and Westminster Abbey.” Such things were considered “roll-calls of a good part of the English establishment, which testify to Wordsworth’s standing in the worlds of Church and State,” and were supported and encouraged by lists of committees and subscribers which, in Wordsworth’s case, included, Victoria and Albert, the Bishop of London, members of Parliament, masters of Cambridge colleges, Gladstone, Tennyson, Arnold, and Thackeray. But not necessarily all members of his immediate family and other friends. Different and conflicting projects where in various stages of action.

Anyway, in 1851, almost a year and a half after Wordsworth’s death, a sculptor was commissioned by the Grasmere subscription heads, who became concerned that the London project would “swallow up their money.” (They were referring, I think, to the statue and carvings later installed in Westminster Abbey, first beside the baptismal and then moved to their "Poets' Corner.")

This hired mason was charged to produce a medallion portrait and commemorative tablet for St. Oswald’s Church. Part of this memorial has various floral motifs—daffodils, snowdrops, violets, and celandine—as part of it’s design. I believe this is the memorial stone which has the incorrect celandine shown—and that somewhere along the line, was mistakenly said to be carved on the gravestone. And this muddled "fact" was picked up by researchers (more likely botanical rather than biographical) and parroted one after another—yours truly included—like furry little lemmings following one another off the cliff into the sea.

Whether my latest literary sleuthing has provided the actual answer/excuse is certainly not definitive. So the next time you are in the area, it might be fun to see if you can verify or come up with an alternate explanation. But one thing I am sure of—which your photos and much of what I've read backs up—is the erroneous celandine depiction is not to be found on the actual headstone at Wordsworth’s grave.

Hey, I've had a good time this morning trying to sort out this mix-up…whether I've actually managed to do so or not.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Solitary…

I kinda thought you'd like Wordsworth. I've read and enjoyed Wordsworth all my life. And you're right tin that some of his stuff was uneven. But most of his nature poetry—even that which was obliquely about the natural world—was really first rate.

Everone I've ever talked to about it says the Lake District is truly beautiful. Because of Wordsworth and what I've read of the area, it is one of the two or three places I really hope to be able to visit before I get too ancient to ramble about and explore to my satisfaction.

Hey, you might be able to ferret out some info re. the "erroneous celandine carving" which I've misquoted as being on his gravestone…but isn't. Help me bail my butt out of this mess.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Carolyn…

You may be a bit high on the mountain for lesser celandine—I really only see it here within riverine woodlands.

It is sure pretty, though.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Grace…

No, lesser celandine is non-native to the U.S.

For a long time it has been a very popular garden plant worldwide. Catalogs from the Eighteenth Century often list upwards of 750 cultivars! At some point the ground-cover plant escaped the garden and began naturalizing itself—and subsequently went wild. I first began noticing it around here maybe 10 years ago. The "invasive" designation also refers to the way lesser celandine simply takes over a bit of land—growing and blooming thick in great swathes, as you can see in my photos.

But the plant doesn't linger long. Even today, the blooms are far fewer than when I made the photographs; I expect they'll be gone by this weekend. And they are truly lovely, so bright and intensely yellow. Personally, I'm not calling lesser celandine an invasive in the pejorative sense.

The Solitary Walker said...

You seem to be right in your research. I've no photos of my own of the Wordsworth graves, but from memory the headstone of William and Mary's grave in St Oswald's churchyard is simple and unadorned - and some image-googling has just proved this.

There is most definitely a memorial tablet inside the church itself - depicting WW's profile in relief flanked by flowers (apparently daffodils, celandines, snowdrops and poppies, as you say). But whether it's the lesser or greater celandine that's represented is difficult to make out from the few Internet photos I've manged to locate. However, the greater/lesser mix-up does seem to be well documented.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Solitary…

I really appreciate all that you've said, your help and effort, and the information you've provided.

Rowan's photo and other internet photos I've Googled up clearly show there is NOT an image of any sort on WW's gravestone. So I wasn't expecting vindication of my error as to which stone had the celandine image. But I am glad to know the greater/lesser mix-up is documented, and may have reasonably occurred on another carving elsewhere. My proficiency as a researcher my be shaky, but at least my integrity remains mostly intact and I can quit questioning my own sanity.

Thank you again, my friend. I expect I owe you one.

Rowan said...

I really enjoyed reading your reply to my comment, I'm glad you enjoyed your morning's research and my blog:) I confess that I didn't see the memorial in the church as I was more taken with the rushbearing bits and pieces - also had DH and dog waiting outside so wasn't able to linger as much as I'd have liked. They are patient but there are limits! It will almost certainly be the end of the summer or early autumn before I can get there again but will go and examine the memorial when I do. It will give me time to fix the differences between greater and lesser celandine in my mind so that I know what I'm looking for! What a very interesting post this has turned out to be.

Jayne said...

Invasive or not, it's lovely. :c)

Sydney said...

I've been wondering... is this water right near your place or even, on your own property?

And you're right, it's beautiful and bright. THanks for educating me about this little flower.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

Well, I was going to suggest you looked at the two celandines on Wikipedia when I came across this entry:

"Upon Wordsworth's death it was proposed that a celandine be carved on his memorial plaque inside the church of Saint Oswald at Grasmere, but unfortunately the Greater celandine Chelidonium majus was mistakenly used."

So there, under my nose, may be our confirmation answer. You can still use the Wikipedia photos to note the differences between the two plants, however, and confirm for yourself once you go back to Grasmere.

And this has, indeed, been unexpected fun!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

I agree. And as it furnishes such huge masses of bright yellow early on, in areas that otherwise are mostly bare or contain only a handful of plants (admittedly, sometimes native wildflowers) that I really can't get all bent out of shape over its arrival.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Sydney…

I have about an acre of land, sort of rectangular, with the river forming about a 300 foot length of the western border. (Actually, my legal property line extends 50 feet under the water.) The modest stone cottage sits smack on the bank—and the water at normal pool is about 4–8 feet out, depending on which corner of the building you measure from, and something less than 10 feet down, depending on water level. I can quite literally fish from my living room.

Rowan said...

I've just looked on wikipedia at both celandines and now realise that there's no possibility of mixing them up, flowers and leaves are quite different. The one I was thinking of that is very similar is caltha palustris, the kingcup. So there we are, you learn something new every day:)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

Or as I once heard an old fellow from the Kentucky hills put it…I've become educated in spite of myself. :-)

Rowan said...

I like it! :):):)

Nutty Gnome said...

Beautifully put!
I've got some in my garden and I love them. I'm going to transplant some up into the wooded area right at the top of the garden and let them get on with it up there having seen your post.
PS, I'm very fond of Wordsworth too!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Nutty Gnome…

I love these little yellow blooms and bright green leave, all shiny as if varnished. The only fault I have with them is they simply don't stay around long enough. A moist, shady habitat suits them fine, but your hilltop site ought to work.

Glad to have you comment—whether you're a new visitor or anonymous reader. You're always welcome.

P.S. I'm sure Wordsworth will find his way onto future posts, too, as he's one of my favorites.

Nutty Gnome said...

Ooops, sorry Scribe - I really ought to have introduced (and explained) myself!

Phoenix C. suggested that I read your blog and gave me the link to this post on celandines as it linked with my post.

I've been reading your posts and I love your writing - very evocative
and prosaic...lovely!

My blog is mostly about the Japanese Garden I am (slowly!) building, but as you saw - it has brief forays into other gardening issues .....except not as beautifully put as in your posts:)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Nutty Gnome…

I'm glad to have you as a reader. Please don't hesitate to jump right in with a comment anytime about nature, gardening, Wordsworth, or whatever strikes your fancy.

You have a lovely garden—unfinished or not (are gardens ever finished?)—and blog. Plus I've just been reading up on wisteria, thanks to your mention.

HER ON THE HILL said...

Lovely post - beautiful pix, very evocative - and I'm so pleased to learn more about Lesser Celandine which takes over our garden at this time of year too.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Her-on-the-Hill…

The lesser celandine is a beautiful but brief spring show here along the river, and I look forward to its bright yellow blossoms every year.

I'm glad you found your way to this riverbank site…and pleased you enjoyed the post. I hope you'll visit and comment often. You're always welcome.