This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Leaves reniform or orbicular, crenate or entire; two to four inches wide, on long semi-cylindric petioles, upper ones sessile, all of a dark, shining green, veiny and smooth. Root large, and branching. Stem about two feet high, sometimes trailing, hollow, round, dichotomous. Flowers of a golden yellow in all their parts, one and a half inch in diameter, few, pedunculate. ( Wood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, and Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States.)
IN almost all countries the advent of spring is hailed with delight. Poets love to picture its coming.
" 'Tis springtime on the eastern hills ! Like torrents gush the summer rills, Through winter's moss and dry, dead leaves The bladed grass revives and lives, Pushes the mouldering waste away, And glimpses to the April day. In kindly shower and sunshine bud The branches of the dull grey wood; Out from its sunned and sheltered nooks The blue eye of the violet looks;
The southwest wind is warmly blowing, And odors from the springing grass, The pine tree and the sassafras, Are with it on its errands going.
If we in this country where the winters are by no means long or monotonous can sympathize with these lines of Whittier, how must the Laplanders rejoice when they see their first spring flower! In these far away places spring is not supposed to come till the cuckoo's voice is heard; and Linnaeus thought it important enough to note that the first flowers of the marsh-marigold opened simultaneously with the first appearance of this early bird in that land. In our country we show our thankfulness for spring in our spring-flower parties, to which violets and trailing Arbutus chiefly pay tribute; but in the older lands, where spring does not come so soon, and is more important, they have formal May-day festivals, and the " marsh-marigolds " enter largely into the wreaths and garlands employed on these joyful occasions. Some have supposed from its name, marigold, that it may have at some time been dedicated to the Virgin Mary; but this suggestion shows how easy it is to be mistaken by similarities, for it appears by Prior's researches that marigold is simply the merse mear-geallia of the old Saxon language, and which simply means "marsh-horse gold," and the earlier poets called it simply "gold-flower" or "marsh gold-flower."
The name adopted for its botanical one is of very ancient origin, as it occurs in Vitruvius, Pliny, and other ancient Latin authors; but there seems to be an uncertainty as to what plant was referred to. Pliny is believed to have had in mind a sort of white violet when he uses the name. Some have thought some species of Calendula - the common "pot-marigold" - might be referred to, and of which one species, Calendula arvensis, is found in Greece, growing on rocky hills; but the old fable connected with it seems to have an eye to some swamp or fountain-loving plant, for the story goes that there was once a Sicilian boy named Clymenon, a grandson of Patura, who was in love with the Sun. Whenever night came he was so disconsolate that he could hardly sleep, and he always rose betimes so as to get the earliest glimpse of the object of his devotion. So passionate became this sun-worship, that he would on no account pass a moment in the shade. But once the sun remained under a cloud for eight days. Clymenon sought by the aid of a fountain to see some reflection of his beloved sun, but failing pined away, and died! When at the end of its cloudy period the sun shone out, it discovered the body of its true love. It pitied Clymenon, and turned the body into a beautiful flower on the spot where he fell; and where in this floral form, Atys, Cybele's favorite shepherd, found him while sitting near the fountain some time afterwards.
In our country, to which it is indigenous as well as to so many portions of the old world, it has not attracted any marked attention, though Bigelow says bunches of them are brought among the early wild flowers, and sold on the streets of Boston as "cowslips." A distinguished English author, noticing this statement, is indignant that the name of the true poetical cowslip - or Primula - should thus be trenched upon; but there is little danger of our Shakespearian friend suffering long by this local trespass of the citizens of Boston, for "marsh-marigold" is becoming popular everywhere. In some parts of England they go under the name of "May-Blobs." It is said that the early spring leaves make pood greens when cooked, and that the thick root-stocks yield a good starch which is wholesome when boiled, but the raw leaves are very acrid. No cattle will touch them, and as they are closely related to the Hellebores, may well partake of the dangerous properties of that section of Ranunculaceous plants. The buds have a particularly biting character, and it is said have been used as a substitute for capers.
The earlier botanists, in their description of Caltha, spoke of it as having "calyx none," in distinction with Ranunculus, its ally, which has a calyx. They regarded the colored parts as "petals" only. Modern botanists say "petals none," as they prefer to regard them as sepals, and a true calyx. If they were writing of lilies they would call these floral envelopes merely a perianth, for really these floral parts are as much calyx as corolla, or rather both combined. The number of these parts varies from four to ten, and judging from Ranunculus we may very well believe that when the highest of these numbers is reached, five stand for sepals, and five for petals, as in the true crow-foots. In the whole of the Ranunculacea the stamens very readily revert to petals, as in their earlier stages they are believed to be the same.
In our country the marsh-marigold extends down to South Carolina, where, according to Chapman, it is found in cedar-swamps; on the Pacific shore, however, it is not found in California. It becomes rather abundant as it leaves South Carolina on its northward journey, and from the north extends across the continent to Asia, being one of those plants which makes a circuit of the globe. As usual in widely distributed species it exhibits some variations at times, and though in such cases it is usual to say that the variations are brought about by "climate " or " location," it is by no means clear that this is the case, or indeed that any one has yet discovered what is the law that induces these variations. In some instances they are found with the leaves toothed or notch-edged, as in our plate; at other times plants are observed with the edges quite entire. Then cases occur where the leaves are on long petioles, and again where they are sessile, that is to say without leaf-stalks. Sometimes the stems are quite upright, and at others they have been found trailing over the mud, and then they differ, as already noted, in the number of the floral envelopes. In past times when the range and the limit of good species were not known as now, many of these forms were regarded as good species, and had distinctive appellations. Mr. Sereno Watson, in his Bibliographical Index, gives the names of nine so-called species which are all regarded now as the same as Caltha palustris, and are classed as synonyms, - Mr. Watson supposing that perhaps one Siberian form may be worth retaining as a distinctly marked variety. Sometimes all the stamens revert to petals, and then we have of course a double flower, in which condition it is much prized by cultivators who may have a rather damp piece of ground to grow it in. In Mr. Darwin's "Forms of Flowers" he notes a case on the authority of a French author, Lecoq, where pistils and all had turned to petals, making a complete male flower, and that the plants which bore these were mingled with plants having the normal hermaphrodite flowers. Mr. Darwin regards this as remarkable from his point of view.