Monday, March 28, 2011

Homage to snow drops and other early spring flowers

During my recent visit to Pendle Hill, I was enchanted by a tiny white flower that shyly drooped its petals towards the earth. It was the first flowering of spring. Clustered together in little groups, shivering in the brisk breezes, these delicate blooms seemed incredibly fragile... and incredibly brave.

I later learned these flowers were snowdrops and are so hardy they sometimes emerge while the snow is still on the ground. Some think this flower may have been the mysterious moly--the flower that Hermes gave Odysseus so that he wouldn't be affected by Circe, the enchantress.

I am always happy to make the acquaintance of a new flower--it's like making a new friend. And I love to share these little discoveries with others, especially with those I love.

Several years ago I wrote a letter to my wife Kathleen while I was at Pendle Hill in which I described another flower that tugged at my heart. This yellow flower with star-like petals takes over Pendle Hill in April, yet no one knew its name. I was intrigued to learn this flower was called the lesser celandine and was loved by William Wordsworth even more than he loved daffofils.

Inspired by this flower, I wrote the following piece that became the lead story in the spring 2008 issue of Friends Journal.

On Falling in Love with a Weed at Pendle Hill:

A Letter to my Wife Kathleen

Dear One,

Today a flower caught my eye—a little yellow flower which grows everywhere here in Pendle Hill in the spring, and which I must have seen hundreds of times, but I’ve never paid any attention to it before. It’s the kind of flower you would have noticed and admired with the enthusiasm that I love so much in you. I can almost hear your “oohs” and “ahhs” of admiration.

As I sat outdoors with friends eating lunch, I looked out across the unkempt lawn and noticed that it was covered with little yellow flowers strewn about like clusters of stars.

“Does anyone know what these little yellow flowers are?” I asked.

“They’re buttercups,” someone said without much interest as she grazed on her salad.
“I’m pretty sure they’re not buttercups,” I replied. “Buttercups are round and when you put them under someone’s chin, you can tell if they like butter.”

The memory of buttercups brought smiles to both our faces, but still I wanted to know more about these yellow flowers with star-like petals and heart-shaped leaves. I asked again if anyone knew the flower’s name.
“It’s an invasive weed,” someone else said as if she were talking about an undesirable alien that had moved into the neighborhood. “We have to pull them up all the time in the garden. They’re a nuisance.”

“At least, they’re an attractive nuisance,” I replied.

All day as I went about my other business, I puzzled about this little flower. Its tiny yellow petals reached out to the sun with such joy and hopefulness. Surely it had a name and a story.

I went to the Source of All Knowledge, Google, and found images of hundreds of little yellow flowers, but none were like the ones that blanket Pendle Hill.

Later I had dinner with an interesting young African American man named Adam who told me about his spiritual journey. Born into a Baptist family, he had discovered Islam and then explored various African religions and now was experimenting with Quakerism. As often happens at Pendle Hill, our conversation took a mystical turn and we both agreed that everything is interconnected. We are all One, and yet somehow diverse and individual.

“It’s like those flowers,” I said. “We are all alike and yet unique. Each of us has been given a unique name so we can know each other. As God says in the Bible, I will call you each by name. When we can name each other, we can have a relationship. We can love each other, as God loves us.”

Adam has a beautiful wife with the lovely name Saba and two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, whose names are Morningstar and Little Bear. It’s nice knowing that my new friend’s name is Adam, and that Adam means “earthling” in Hebrew. If I didn’t know Adam’s name, how could I be his friend?

As a wandered about Pendle Hill, enjoying the trees with their nametages, I continued to wonder about the nameless flower that seemed to pop up at my feet wherever I walked.

Not far from the Barn, I ran across O. “O” is the name of an African American woman who wear all-black clothing (t-shirts and pants) and has a Mohawk tinged with gray (she has a daughter in her 20s). O often gives messages during meeting for worship that speak to and about the mysterious depths of the soul and body. O’s official job is to clean up the rooms and do other chores, but her real position is that of prophet-in-residence. I asked O if she knew the name of this flower.

“It’s a lesser celandine,” she said very calmly and confidently.

I was impressed but not surprised that O knew what no one else seemed to know or care about. O knows everything worth knowing about Pendle Hill.

So I returned to that lesser oracle, Google, to find out more about the “lesser celandine.”

Its Latin monicker is ranunculus ficaria. It is described in Wikipedia as a “low-growing, hairless perennial with fleshy dark green, heart-shaped leaves.”

Hmm. Hairless. Fleshy. These are adjectives that never would have occurred to me. And there is no mention of its lovely yellow petals. Who could fail to notice the celandine’s most striking feature?

The article went on to note that the celandine is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. and is found throughout Europe and west Asia and was imported to North America. It prefers bare, damp ground and is considered a persistent garden weed by many people.

But not by all. William Worthworth “discovered” the celandine and was proud of the fact that he was the first English poet to celebrate it in verse. Like most of us, he passed by the celandine for many years until one day he noticed its simple, yet striking beauty:

I have seen thee, high and low,
Thirty years or more, and yet
Twas a face I did not know.

Once he came to “know its face,” the celandine became a flower that Wordsworth loved and celebrated throughout his life. He identified with its ordinariness, its lack of aristocratic pretense. Unlike the rose or the orchid, the celandine did not expect or need special treatment. Unlike the tulip or the daffodil, it was never prized. Yet it was at home everywhere:

Kindly, unassuming Spirii
Careless of thy neighborhood.
Thou dost show thy pleasant face
On the moor, and in the wood.
In the lane—there’s not a place,
Howsoever mean it be,
But ‘tis good enough for thee.

Wordsworth saw the celandine not simply as a ubiquitous presence, but as a “prophet of delight
and mirth.” And like most prophets, the celandine is “ill-requited upon earth."
The Germans called the celandine Scharbockskraut (Scurvywort) because they believed that the leaves, which are high in Vitamin C, could help prevent scurvy. The English nicknamed the plant Pilewort because the knobbly tubers of the plant resemble piles and therefore could help alleviate hemorrhoids. I don’t want to speculate how this herb was used.

Folks in earlier times may have given this little flower unappealing names, but at least they thought that it was a useful herb. Nowadays, we regard it simply as an invasive weed.

Excited and delighted to learn so much about this flower, I went back to the dormitory to see if I could find anyone to share my discovery with. A bunch of mostly young students were about to watch a documentary called “The End of Suburbia.” It’s a doomsday film about peak oil and how the American way of life is about to go down the tubes. I told them about the celandine.

The only thing that caught their attention was my comment that the celandine was a non-native species. This factoid got everyone talking about how awful non-native species are, and how they are ruining the environment.

In a sense, this is true, but many indigenous folk would see all of us in the room as “non-natives” and we are indeed ruining the environment in ways far worse than what the celandine is doing.

But maybe that’s being too hard on the celandine, and on ourselves. Maybe we need to see the world through the eyes of a prophetic poet like Wordsworth.

Wordsworth saw the world with the kind of vision that enabled Jesus to say of wildflowers. “They neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

The compulsive workaholism of Americans, and our obsession with celebrity and success, would not have impressed Wordsworth. He enjoyed debunking the pretensions of “great men” by praising this simple, everyday flower known to all, but noticed and appreciated by very few:

Eyes of men travel far
For the finding of a star;
Up and down the heavens they go,
Men that keep a mighty rout!
I’m as great as they, I trow,
Since the day I found thee out.
Little Flower! I’ll make a stir,
Like a sage astronomer.

Wordsworth ends this poem by addressing a flower as humble as an old shoe, yet as praiseworthy as a pyramid, when seen through the eyes of a lover:

Thou art not beyond the moon,
But a thing “beneath our shoon.”
Let the bold Discoverer thrid
In his bark the polar sea;
Rear who will a pyramid;
Praise it is enough for me,
If there be but three or four
Who will love my little Flower.

Wordsworth continued to love and to write about this little flower even as he grew older and became aware of his infirmities and dark moods. In a later poem, he writes that “there is a flower, the lesser celandine, that shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain.” But on “one rough day” the poet notices a celandine that doesn’t close up against the storm; it stands up stiffly in the icy blasts. That’s because the celandine is old and dying. Wordsworth again identifies with his “old friend.” “In my spleen,” writes Wordsworth. “I smiled that it was grey.”

Perhaps it seems sentimental or “romantic” to have a long-term relationship with a flower, particularly one that most people regard as a weed. Yet I feel somehow richer and more complete having shared this experience with Wordsworth. I am grateful to have had the time to commune with the living things here at Pendle Hill and to have come to know the lowly celandine as a f/Friend.

Whenever I come back to Pendle Hill in the spring, I will remember the time when I first noticed this little flower that caught my eye and captured my heart. There will doubtless come to a day when I am old and gray and have to hobble along with a walker just like some of the older Board members who come here faithfully each spring.

Feeling the need to write and reflect on the celandine, I left the room where the young students were watching “The End of Suburbia.”. When I returned, I said, “What did you think of the movie? Are we doomed or is there any hope?”

“We’re all going to die someday,” a young man said with a brave show of cheerfulness.

This is true. But when I pass on, I will have experienced the little celandine in all its glory. Maybe at my memorial meeting, someone will remember me by saying, “Anthony was someone who loved flowers and wrote a little essay about some little flower here at Pendle Hill thought was an invasive weed. What was that flower’s name anyway?”

When Wordsworth died, it was proposed that a celandine be carved on his memorial plaque inside the church of Saint Oswald at Grasmere. But unfortunately they used the wrong flower, the Greater Celandine.

Only those who know the little celandine and love it as Wordsworth did would notice or care.

That, my Friend, is the latest news from Pendle Hill, where there are no weeds, only flowers and plants that we don’t have a name or story or a poem for yet.




  1. Anthony,

    This is wonderfully-written and I'm very glad I took the time out of rather busy work schedule to read this today. Very fitting that it is a letter to Kathleen as I can easily imagine her response to this simple yet elegant flower. It brings me back to a time when I helped you in your garden and discovered a wonderful bush known as "Pyroacanthus". Remember?

  2. Ah yes. the pyrocanthus--the firebush, aptly named. I hope you take time from your busy schedule to admire flowers, as Kathleen and I always did and I still do. Flowers are like love letters from God.... Have a joyous day!

  3. We have an abundance of the lovely Ranunculus ficaria. It is the first blossom I see in the garden here.

  4. Thank you for sharing!!! I grew up in Missouri and I'm now living in Boston, MA. I was so delighted to learn of the flower's name, as I just saw it blooming earlier today. I will remember your post and the words of Wordsworth each time I see this small bright gift from our Lord.

  5. This little flower grows everywhere in my part of Ohio, but I could find no trace of it on the Interwebs, until I came to your essay. I am so glad to know that it has a name and even a famous patron. Thank you for taking the time to share what you have learned.


  6. Beautiful piece, Anthony~ There are so many messages in this story~~ It will stay with me awhile, maybe always~ (And I love that it is a letter to Kathleen, too)