Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, a few weeks ago we had a look at Lesser Celandine, that delicate flower of shady woodland with the heart-shaped leaves and the daisy-like flowers. Today, the Greater Celandine is popping up all over my garden. It has seeded itself in one of my terracotta pots, taken up residence by my side-door and is giving the Yellow Corydalis a run for its money in my side return. In short, this is a much bolder plant than its namesake, a plant of bright light and poor soil.
Lesser and Greater Celandine are from completely different plant families. Lesser Celandine is a buttercup, but Greater Celandine is a poppy. Like all of the poppy family, the plant has four petals. It also has a distinctive bright orange, latex-like sap, which is poisonous and irritating to the skin.
The petals drop off at the mere touch of a hand, it seems, and the seedpods develop at a startling rate.
Greater Celandine was named for the Swallow (Chelidon), as it is said to bloom when they arrive, and to fade when they leave (unlike the Lesser Celandine, which is finished before the birds even turn up). There was also an ancient legend that Swallows used the flower to restore the sight of their fledglings. Why the babies needed their sight restored in the first place is lost in history, but it was believed to be useful for human eye complaints.Putting such an astringent substance into the eyes would seem to be counter-intuitive, but on the wonderful Poison Garden website, John Robertson has an explanation:
‘……in Anglo-Saxon Medicine, M. L. Cameron explains that, when being used as an eye salve, recipes including celandine require it to be heated skilfully to become lukewarm. It is mixed with honey and the heating must take place in a brass or copper pot. The heating reduced the irritant nature of the celandine and the honey and copper salts from the pot were bactericidal so the remedy may have had some efficacy. The heating needed to be done skilfully to avoid burning.’
What the latex is useful for, however, is the curing of warts. In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey states that only Comfrey and Feverfew have more statements of efficacy from the people who contributed to the volume. It has also been used for toothache (by no less a person than Queen Elizabeth I) and as a purgative.
Under the Doctrine of Signatures (which we have discussed before, here and here), the bile-coloured sap was said to give an indication that the plant could be used for liver disorders. However, in 1999 ten people were admitted to hospital with acute hepatitis following the ingestion of a remedy made with Greater Celandine. This is an indication of the need to be extremely sure what you are doing before experimenting with the powers of the plant kingdom.
For all its long history of medicinal use, Greater Celandine is not a native plant: along with Fallow Deer, Horse Chestnuts and central heating, it is believed to have been introduced by our old friends, the Romans. However, it has made itself very much at home with us, and is seldom found far from human habitation, like a kind of floral House Sparrow. For reasons that escape me, it is the birthday flower for October 9th, by which time it will be well and truly asleep for the year. However, for the time being it is in its prime, and I advise any readers who have not had a good look at it to stop to admire its bright little face. It’s enough to cheer up any wait at the bus stop.