Tuesday 19 July 2011

Greater Celandine

Greater Celandine, (Chelidonium majus) loves to grow near people, yet not quite so happily these days.  A member of the poppy family it can be found gaily roaming the hedge near farmland, not may I say, common in the vicinity of my London flat.
The greater celandine is a herbaceous perennial which  can grow to a height of between one to three feet.  Many slightly hairy branches spring from a thick and fleshy root, and shoot upwards, scrambling amongst its other hedgerow brothers and sisters. The whole plant contains a bright orange-coloured juice which is said to be a powerful irritant, and which allegedly can be used to cure warts, ringworm and corns.
    According to Mrs Grieve its appearance is of the Crucifer√¶ order rather than the poppy family papaverace√¶, (sounds like a load of journalists) as its four petals are arranged in the shape of a cross.  This is the true celandine, and has no relationship whatsoever with its name sake the lesser celandine, except of course ,  they both have yellow flowers. According to Mrs Grieve ‘It was a drug plant in the Middle Ages and is mentioned by Pliny, to whom we owe the tradition that is called Chelidonium from the Greek chelidon (a swallow) as  it appears that it comes into flower when the swallows arrive, and fades at their departure.’ She adds that the ‘English word Celandine is merely a corruption of the Greek word.’ (Chelidonium) She also suggests ‘Its acrid juice has been employed successfully in removing films from the cornea of the eye; a property which Pliny tells us was discovered by swallows.’(another swallow link) It appears that  that swallows were seen to pluck off celandine leaves and then rub them upon the unopened eyes of their young.  Gerard says that ‘the juice of the herbe is good to sharpen the sight, for it cleanseth and consumeth away slimie things that cleave about the ball of the eye and hinder the sight and especially being boiled with honey in a brazen vessel, as Dioscorides teacheth.’  Me thinketh, the learn-ed gentlemen copiest each other, without testing this out. I still don’t fancy putting something in my eye at the same time as I am employing this very same juice to remove warts and corns.
   Culpeper argues in support of this use of the celandine, quite emphatically, submitting that if  ‘you make celandine into an oil or an ointment,’ ‘it is one of the best cure for the eyes’ he later posits; ‘I can prove it doth both by my own experience,  and the experience of those to whom I have taught it, that most desperate sore eyes have been cured by this only medicine;’ he continues ‘I pray, is this not a far better than endangering the eyes by the art of the needle?’ Don’t like the sound of either personally! 
  So here we see (sorry for the pun) the link between the eye and the swallow. The swallow is guilty of opening the eyes of their young with celandine, therefore it must be ok. It is rather interesting to find that in many cases these suggestions stem from notes being taken from the animal and bird kingdom. However I do suggest due caution if trying a remedy just because the birds do it, after all our feathered friends happily feed on yew berries, not something that I would recommend copying.

   It is, according to Mrs G, one of the ‘twenty-four herbs mentioned in Mercer’s Herbal’ a fourteenth century work I have no idea what this is, and can find no record of it apart from this inclusion.
   Celandine is said to be good for the blood, with the old herbalists pointing to its yellow juice, and suggesting its use as a cure for jaundice; as the doctrine of signatures points to plants with yellow sap as a remedy for jaundice and liver complaints. It is found, in present days, growing in hedgerows here in the U.K,  and in Culpeper’s time it appears that it’s habitat was not dissimilar. He states ‘They grow in many places by old walls, hedges and waysides in untilled places; and being once planted in a garden, especially some shady places, it will remain there.’

   It is interesting that the above photo was taken in a hedge very near to Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent, so the following piece of information became most fascinating to me, as evidently ‘This Eurasian herb has followed civilisation, with numerous folklore stories surrounding its uses. It was a popular herb at the height of the RomanEmpire,’   So I can playfully imagine the above specimen being a direct descendent of a Roman ancestor.

   Culpeper says of  celandine, ‘this  is an herb of the Sun’ (understandably.) He goes onto place it ‘under the Celestial Lion, and is one of the best cures for the eyes; for all that know anything in astrology, know that the eyes are subject to the luminaries; let it then be gathered when the Sun is in Leo and the Moon in Aries.’ Manfred M Junius places it under the rulership of both the Sun and Jupiter, which appears, according to Agrippa to include all things that ‘increase nourishment, and vegetation of the life.’ Although he does say ‘Amongst tastes, such as are sweat and pleasant’ Hmm, not too sure about that one. However it is probably best implied by the statement ‘all such things whose sweetness is manifest and subtle, partaking  somewhat of an astringent and sharp taste, as are nuts, almonds, pine-apples, filberts, pistachio nuts, roots of peony, myrobalan, rhubarb, and manna; Orpheus adds storax.’ however according to Junius, ‘Jovian diseases are all diseases due to immoderation in eating and drinking, bad digestion, too much congestion and impure blood.’ Back to the yellow blood again, thereby the link becomes clearer.
  Cunningham suggests this plant as poisonous, yet implies that celandine ‘imparts good spirits and joy if worn’ he adds the suggestion that one should wear it ‘to court to win favour of the judge or jury, or as a protective herb.’ He gives its magical uses as ‘aids in escaping unwarranted imprisonment and entrapments of every kind.’ Catherine Yronwode also places celandine as protective and indicates that it is ‘said to keep off both witches and law officers.’ Donald Law mentions that ‘The gypsies used to put the herb in their shoe and keep it there when they walked, they claimed it kept their feet fresh’ however I’ m wondering if it has anything to do with the previous suggestions; or maybe both. 

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