Greater Celandine

(Chelidonium majus) The name Celandine (see also Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria) derives from Pliny, for he was responsible for the legend that seeks to account for the name, which was Khelidonion in Greek, from Khelidon, the swallow. The birds used the plant, he says, to restore their sight. But he also said the flowering of the plant coincided with the swallow's stay in Europe, but that would not agree with conditions as we know them. Theophrastus says it bloomed when the swallow-wind blew (Browning).

The doctrine of signatures, in this case the plant's yellow sap, ensured that it would be used to cure jaundice. It is the leaves that are used in Suffolk, boiled in water (V G Hatfield. 1994), and earlier usage, as in Gerard's advice, prescribed the roots: "the root cureth the yellow jaundice which comes of the stopping of the gall.". Even putting some leaves in the shoe was supposed to cure the disease (Tynan & Maitland).

The legends connected with this plant and with lesser celandine explain its use, from the earliest times (in ancient Chinese medicine, for instance), as a specific for sore or weak eyes (Grigson. 1974). It continued into Anglo-Saxon times, when it was prescribed for "dimness of eyes and soreness and obstruction ." (Cockayne). The orange latex of celandine is very irritant, but after drying or heating the acrid property is much reduced or destroyed. In this state it has been used successfully "since time immemorial to remove films or spots from the cornea (M L Cameron). A medieval Jewish work recommended the sap for spots in the eye, and for cataracts (Trachtenberg). The prescriptions carried on into Gerard's time. He said that "the juice of the herbe is good to sharpen the sight, for it clenseth and consumeth away slimie things that cleave about the back of the eye, and hinder the sight".

As well as to "eat away . opacities in the cornea", it was used to "eat away warts." (Thornton). Some of the names given to the plant reflect this usage - see, for instance, Wart-plant, Wartweed, Tetterwort, Fellonwort, etc., and it is called in French herbe aux verrues (Schauenberg & Paris). Gypsies use the juice as an outward application both for corns and warts (Vesey-Fitzgerald). Somerset advice, too, was to rub the juice on the corn, which would eventually come out with the blister (Tongue. 1965) (that was also from a gypsy). The juice on the skin will raise a blister; and it may cause ulcers, too (Fl├╝ck), but the Pennsylvania Germans used the juice on bee stings, or on poison ivy rashes (Fogel). But then it was the bruised leaf that was employed (Radford & Radford). The plant is used in East Anglia for toothache (Fernie), an ancient usage, for Gerard repeated it from much earlier herbals: "the root being chewed is reported to be good against the toothache". It is even reported that a decoction of the plant has been used in East Anglia to treat liver cancer (V G Hatfield. 1994).

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