Lesser Celandine

(Ranunculus ficaria) Pliny was responsible for the legend that seeks to account for the name celandine, which was Khelidonion in Greek, from khelidon, a swallow. The birds used the plant, he says, to restore their sight. The name appears again in Theophrastus, who says that the flower blooms when the swallow wind blows. It is extraordinary how such a fancy as Pliny's hung on. The rhyme that Mrs Hewett quoted from Devonshire retains the idea, though in an extended form:

Fennel, rose, vervain, celandine and rue,

Do water make which will the sight renew.

An infusion of the flowers was once used in Norfolk to treat the sore eyes that accompany measles (V G Hatfield. 1994).

Celandine roots have some symbolic significance; they resemble cows' teats, or so it is claimed, so farmers used to hang them in the cowshed in a magical effort to make the cows produce more milk (North).

As names like Pilewort and Figwort show, this plant was a country remedy for piles. Gerard mentioned the use, and it was certainly still being practiced in the Hebrides in Murdoch McNeill's time (1910), and it was a common remedy in Dorset, too (Dacombe). One wonders if it had any effect, for the reason for its use was almost certainly doctrine of signatures -there are small tubers on the roots, and these are the signs, for pile is Latin pila, ball. Not only piles were suggested by these small tubers. Growths on the ears and small lumps in the breast were also treated with it in Scotland. The juice was applied externally, but carefully, of course, for the juice is acrid. In the case of swellings in the breast, the Highland practice was to put celandine roots under the arms (Beith). But like a lot of examples of the doctrine, there does seem to be some curative effect. Fernie certainly thought so, and Conway confirmed its value, especially in the form of an ointment made from the crushed roots. The specific name, ficaria, is another indication, for it derived from the plant's curative value in the ficus, which means fig, and by extension, piles (hence Figwort, a name not confined to this plant). So confident were they in Holland as to celandine's efficacy against piles that people there actually wore the roots as amulets against the condition (North), and gypsies say that carrying a sprig or two in the pocket will cure it (Quelch). Logan talks about the Irish use of wild buttercup (presumably he means this) for piles, either by grinding up the roots, boiling them with lard and then making an ointment, or by boiling the leaves and drinking the water.

A few other medicinal uses obviously rely on the same virtues. A manuscript of somewhere around 1680, from Lincolnshire, advised that "for a teter or ringe worme, stampe celandine and apply it to the (griefe?) and it will quickly cure you". A leechdom in use in Anglo-Saxon times for toothache prescribed, in Cockayne's translation, "nether part of raven's foot boiled in wine or vinegar. Drink as hot as possible".

If we really are talking of lesser celandine, for there seems no reason why raven's foot should be applied just to this (after all, Crowfoot is a name given to all the buttercups), then the efficacy must have relied on the counter-irritant principle. (see BUTTERCUP)

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