How to Identify Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) Ranunculaceae family

Learn how to identify marsh marigold, then discover its food, medicine, and other uses.

This is one of those plants that is much rarer these days, thanks to humans dramatically altering our landscape, and destroying much of its preferred wetland habitat.

It is still widely found though, and this foraging guide will show you quickly how to identify marsh marigold, and reveals its edible uses.

Because this herb is no longer found in the numbers it once was, I am not advocating the harvesting of marsh marigolds. I am merely documenting that it is a wild food plant, albeit one that we should only think about eating in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

What’s in a name?

The common name marsh marigold points to its preferred habitat of wetland areas. Marigold is a name given to many unrelated bright yellow flowering plants, named after the virgin Mary. The plant is also commonly known as ‘King cups’.

The generic part of the scientific name Caltha, is from an old Greek word ‘kalathos’ meaning ‘goblet’ or ‘cup’, and alludes to the shape of the flowers with their upturned petals.

The specific part of the name, palustris, means ‘of marshy areas’, and helpfully tells us where we might find the plant.

Botanical description

If some of the botanical terms are new to you, then simply turn to our A-Z foragers glossary for help.

Leaves: Large, glossy green, hairless, kidney-shaped leaves, with crenated margins. The leaves are paler on the undersides.

identify marsh marigolds by its leaves in early spring. They are unlike most other plants sharing its habitat.
You can identify marsh marigold by its glossy, kidney shaped-leaves, in early spring.

The basal leaves have white-ish netted veins and tiny white hydathodes at the tips. The leaves are anywhere in size from 3 – 30 cm.

You can learn to identify marsh marigold from just its leaves, as they are unlike the other plants that share their habitat.

Marsh marigold has hairless leaves, a long petiole, with white veins and tiny white hydathode tips.
Marsh marigold has hairlss leaves with white veins and tiny white hydathode tips.

Petioles: These are purplish at the base. Aproximately 10 cm long. The petiole is sheathed at the base. Stem leaves form ochrea; a plant tissue found at the nodes of the stems, and hopefully recognised by readers of my article on sorrel and other dock family plants.

Roots: Short rhizome roots.

Stems: The hollow stems grow to around 40 cm high in flower.

Flowers: Large buttercup yellow flowers, approximately 10 – 50 mm. Like many buttercup family plants, this one has no true petals, but rather, five to eight sepals. These open to reveal a mass of yellow stamens surrounding the fused pistil. When it’s in flower is the best time to try and identify marsh marigold.

In the spring a number of dfferent insect pollinators are attracted to the flowers. These include bees, moths and hovver flies
Marsh marigold attracts a wide range of pollinators including hovver flies.

A range of insects love the flowers. Syrphid flies (flies disguised as bees, including hovver flies), moths and bees all fancy the flowers and will be seen buzzing around and on the plant on warm sunny days.

Flowering season: You can see this plant flowering from April into May.

The main flowering season and best time to identify marsh marigold is during April. It can bloom as early as March if warm enough.
Marsh marigold wil be found in flower during April and May.

Fruits: The fruits look like a spiky crown. They typically have 12 segments, each containing a number of tiny seeds.

caltha palustris has spiky looking fruits, typically divided into 12 segments.
The fruits of Caltha palustris , by Stefan.lefnaer is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Habitats: As the name suggests, this plant loves marshy areas. It enjoys slow moving streams and rivers, canals, and wet meadowlands, except on very acid soils. It can be found in much of Britain, but nowhere near the numbers that proceeded the draining of many wetland habitats for development and agriculture.

Parts used: Leaves, flower buds, and roots.

Harvesting: Leaves can be picked in spring, as can the new flower buds. The roots are best harvested in early autumn.

Edible uses: Leaves can be boiled, but should never be eaten raw due to the presence of the irritant compound protoanenomin. Cooking breaks down the molecule however, rendering the plant safe to eat.

The flower buds can be pickled like a caper. Historical anecdotal evidence suggests these capers were enjoyed by Queen Victoria. The roots can also be eaten after cooking.

Medicinal uses:  Historically the plant was used in a number of folk medicine preparations, for various maladies. I’m quite happy to follow suit with Henriette Kress, who assures us that this plant has no known modern herbal medicine uses.

If you liked this article and want to know more about plant identification, then I strongly advise you spend a few minutes reading my ‘how to identify plants in a day article’, parts one and two. For students of herbal medicine wanting to find out more about medicinal plant constituents, simply head over to our page about medicinal plant chemistry.

Happy foraging!



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