Know Your Natives – Celandine Poppy

Celandine poppy or wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) of the Poppy (Papaveraceae) family is a herbaceous perennial that bears bright yellow flowers in early spring. The genus name is from the Greek for “style” and “bearing” in reference to the flower’s distinctively long style. The specific epithet is also from the Greek, for “two leaves,” in reference to the two opposite stem leaves. In the U.S., the species occurs from Michigan and Pennsylvania south and west to the northern counties of Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia. In Arkansas, it is a species of conservation concern, occurring in a small north-central area of the Ozark plateaus. The common name “celandine” originates from its similarity to greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), a non-native species naturalized from Europe.

Preferred habitat of celandine poppy is deciduous woodlands on partially to fully shady slopes, bottomlands and streambanks, in rich, mesic soils. Roots consist of irregularly shaped, stubby, dark brown rhizomes with white to yellow, long, fleshy roots. Crowns of rhizomes have multiple buds that develop from year to year with growth scars remaining at the end of the growing season. New growth, appearing in late February, remains viable through early summer or longer, depending on soil moisture. Plants have basal leaves and a pair of opposite leaves on the floral stems. The sap is yellow and staining.

Photo 1: This 2-inch-tall rhizome segment has new emergent growth, scars from previous years’ growth, and dormant buds. Photo – late December.
Photo 2: New leaves appear in late February. Inset shows an earlier stage when protective bracts still surrounded new growth.

Deeply lobed basal leaves emerge directly from the rhizome and grow to 8 inches long (including 2½-inch petioles) and 5 inches wide. They are a medium green above and a pale silvery green below. Slender petioles are flattened on the upper side and rounded below, with basal flanges that support emerging leaves and the floral stem. The upper leaf surface is glabrous (hairless) while the lower leaf surface has long, dense, twisty, white hairs. Petioles are also hairy, especially on the lower side. Hairiness of leaves and petioles decreases with age. Venation of the upper leaf surface is slightly suppressed, that of the lower surface expressed. Secondary and tertiary veins divide repeatedly in jerky fashion into the lobes to produce a reticulated pattern. 

Floral stems, light to medium green (occasionally purplish), are terete (round) in cross-section with a scattering of long, white, twisty hairs. They bear a single pair of opposite leaves below the inflorescence. With the ascending stems maturing at about a foot long, the early flowers are positioned just above basal leaves, while later flowers are elevated well above. Floral leaves have the same appearance as basal leaves, except for their shorter petioles.

Photo 3: Flowering plant with many basal leaves and two floral stems, each with a single opposite leaf pair. Hairiness of leaves and stem can be seen. Photo – early April.

One to four slender pedicels, up to 2 inches long and with long scattered hairs, grow from between the stem leaves. Pedicels bear elongate-oval flower buds, nodding at first, that are protected by two densely hairy sepals. As buds turn upward, the corolla pushes out of the enclosing sepals, which then drop off.

Photo 4: A pair of developing stem leaves subtend an umbel consisting of a flower bud on right, a flower on left and a developing seed capsule at center. Note knobby stigma of flower and spent brown stigma atop the capsule.

Showy flowers, up to 2 inches across, in early spring may be present for two or more weeks. Four bright yellow, bowl-shaped petals, typically touching or slightly overlapping, have broad, rounded, crinkly apexes and narrowing bases. The pistil comprises a roughly-textured, knobby stigma on a short stout style above an elongate-ovoid, four-chambered ovary. Yellow hairs cover the ovary. A large number of stamens, positioned in a dense ring around the ovary, have slender, light yellow filaments topped with round, flattened, golden yellow anthers. Flowers (with no nectar) can be self-pollinating.

Photo 5: Bright yellow petals surround a ring of golden yellow stamens. Stigma and ovary are prominent.

With fertilization, style and stigma shrink as the ovary quickly enlarges to an inch-long capsule that dangles near the basal leaves. Capsules mature in late spring, turning inside-out as they dehisce into four segments that fall away. The small, dark brown, shiny, ovoid seeds have white elaiosomes along one edge–these are food for ants that disperse the seeds.

Photo 6: Display of capsules, seeds and upper and lower surfaces of basal leaves. Seeds have white elaiosomes along one edge. Note that hairiness of these mature leaves has been mostly lost. Photo – early May.

For a garden, celandine poppy would provide strong character with its distinctive leaves and bright yellow flowers. This species spreads slowly by short rhizomes, but may be fairly aggressive due to self-seeding in favorable sites. Excess plants can be easily removed. It is avoided by deer and rabbits.

Note: The cultivated, non-native, aggressive greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is vegetatively hard to distinguish from celandine poppy, but it is not currently recorded as escaped in Arkansas. 

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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