April 13, 2022

Lesser Celandine’s Spread is Problem That Requires Individual Action to Stop

To the Editor:

Blooming in many people’s yards right now is a small yellow flower that, upon closer inspection, proves not to be a dandelion. Variously called lesser celandine or fig buttercup, its radical invasiveness triggers a predictable progression of emotions in the homeowner. Delight at its pretty flower soon turns to alarm as year by year it takes over the yard, spreading through flower beds, across lawns and into neighboring properties. What may start as a few scattered, harmless-seeming clumps quickly becomes the equivalent of a rash upon the landscape. Unlike the dandelion, lesser celandine also spreads into nature preserves. Poisonous to wildlife, it forms thick stands reminiscent of pavement. Over time, our nature preserves become less and less edible to the wildlife they were meant to support. Native diversity shifts towards non-native monoculture.

The solution to this aesthetic and ecological problem is straightforward. Learn to identify the plant’s flower and leaves, catch infestations early, then spot spray with a systemic herbicide that will kill lesser celandine’s tenacious roots. This simple prescription, however, often comes up against various romantic views of nature. There’s the let-it-be view that nature will take care of itself. This has been repeatedly proven untrue but has the enduring appeal of excusing the individual from taking action. There’s also the common, seemingly high-minded view that all synthetic pesticides are “poisons.” Yet organic means of controlling lesser celandine have not proven practical. Digging more than a few up is not only time-consuming but also means more trash headed to the landfill. So-called organic herbicides don’t kill the roots. It’s worth noting that most people who prefer organic foods also take synthetic medicines to defend the body from invasions. Those medicines invariably have toxicities, which we minimize by limiting the dose. The same holds for synthetic herbicides to mend nature.

Lesser celandine is so invasive in part because it produces above-ground bulblets that can be spread by runoff, animals, and possibly by lawnmowers. Each new population, whether in a private yard or a town park, sets the stage for additional spread through a neighborhood. Since it dies back in early summer, it can easily hitchhike when gardeners dig up this or that plant to give to friends later in the season.

Those of us living in areas where lesser celandine is just beginning to invade must learn from the massive populations in Pettoranello Gardens and elsewhere. Keep an eye out and take quick action. As with the pandemic, it is we as individuals who are on the front lines. Though indiscriminate use of herbicides can be harmful, our biggest environmental threats come in the guise of too much of a good thing, be it carbon dioxide or a pretty flower. Lesser celandine’s spread is an unintended, collective problem that requires individual action to stop.

Steve Hiltner
North Harrison Street