Last week I discussed plants that can be loved by some and hated by others. I never mentioned fig buttercup, also known as the lesser celandine or pilewort. It is a low growing perennial that makes its growth in the late winter and spring. It’s not really plentiful around here, but I expect that to change. I know of several places where they’ve become established.
Fig buttercups have bright yellow flowers with 8 to 12 petals that rise above shiny succulent heart-shaped leaves. The foliage reminds me of cyclamen leaves or shiny violets. Plants have thick tubers very similar to Florida betony, another invasive cool-season menace.
This aggressive exotic was first introduced from Europe as an ornamental and many cultivars can be found at various nurseries and garden centers. People who want a low growing plant with early season color adapted to wet sandy areas might love it. Plant conservation groups have nothing good to say.
The problem is lesser celandines don’t stay where they are planted. They spread to adjacent places and crowd out many native wildflowers. They form such a dense mat of foliage and emerge so early that native vegetation is choked out. Fig buttercup is especially hard on ephemeral wildflowers. These are plants that make their growth and flower before leaves emerge on most trees.
Once fig buttercup flowers, above ground parts soon disappear. This prompts many to question its harm to existing plants. Other species emerge to fill the space in flower gardens and adjacent areas. Unfortunately, early spring growing species don’t. They gradually die away. Marsh marigolds, Trilliums, trout lilies and Virginia bluebells are just a few victims of the fig buttercup.
Fig buttercup is often confused with a native plant, the marsh marigold. Marsh marigolds are taller and tend to grow in clumps while fig buttercups form continuous mats. The biggest problem is that fig buttercups are especially detrimental to marsh marigold populations. Some people even kill marsh marigolds thinking they are fig buttercups.
Like many other members of the buttercup family, this species contains chemicals toxic to most mammals. Some people eat newly emerged leaves raw with no ill effects. Supposedly, they are high in vitamin C. I’m not that brave.
I’d be willing to try young leaves cooked. Heat renders the toxins harmless, but it also destroys vitamin C. I’d never eat mature leaves but they’d be so full of bitter tannins that I’d never eat enough to make me sick.
Fig buttercup tubers can be cooked and eaten like potatoes. I must admit I’ve never partaken any. I’ve always been leery of any plants from the buttercup family.
These weeds are difficult to control. Pulling up the plants still leaves most of the tubers underground and they emerge the following spring. Some herbicides are effective, but tubers separate from plants easily. If connectivity is broken, the chemical won’t kill below ground parts and they will continue to be a problem the following spring. It might take several years to totally eradicate them.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.