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Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Its bitter taste prevents the plant from causing harm, these days. Its method of use in Anglo Saxon medicine gives an indication that our ancestors were not as wholly driven by suspicion as we sometimes think they were.
Meaning of the Name
From the Greek ‘chelidon’ for the swallow. Some say the plant appeared at the same time as the swallow, others that swallows were seen putting the plant into chicks’ eyes to restore their sight.
Larger. The root ‘maj’ also means May but the normal form of ‘May flowering’ is ‘majalis’.
Common Names and Synonyms
greater celandine, wartwort, yellow spit, St John’s wort, Jacob’s ladder. The last two are mostly applied to Hypericum perforatum and Polemonium caeruleum, respectively.
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The toxic substances are isoquinoline alkaloids and are most concentrated in the roots though harm most often comes from the bright yellow juice of the stem which causes nausea though its bitter taste discourages ingestion. On the skin, the juice produces burning, hence its use to remove warts.
The yellow colour of the juice, matching the colour of bile, led to its use to treat liver disorders in accordance with the Doctrine of Signatures but isoquinoline alkaloids cause liver damage.
In 1999, Benninger at al reported ten cases of acute hepatitis in patients who were taking a herbal remedy made of greater celandine. In all cases, liver function improved rapidly when the medication was withdrawn.
In 1903, it was reported that cattle had died after eating the fruit of the plant.
Folklore and Facts
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
The name Chelidonium comes from the Greek for a swallow. Some said it flowered when the swallows arrived. Some said mother swallows would use it to restore the sight of their young. As a result, it was used in the eyes ‘for it cleanseth and consumeth awaie slimie things that cleave about the ball of the eye’ according to John Gerard. This in spite of Gerard's assertion that its use by swallows is false because there is evidence that, if the eyes of a young swallow are put out, they will regrow naturally without the use of the herb.
Use of a substance in the eyes which can burn warts off the skin
would seem to be problematic but 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.
Cameron also discusses the incantations which were often said as recipes were being prepared. He points out that, in the absence of clocks, giving an incantation to be recited, generally thrice, would give some consistency to the preparation time. Though acknowledging that by making the incantations mysterious (some were in dialects which would not be known to ordinary Anglo-Saxons) the placebo effect could be enhanced by making the medicine ‘magical’, he points out that many Anglo-Saxon remedies have some measure of scientific underpinning and must have developed as a result of careful observation of diseases and the potions used to try and effect cures. It may be that an incantation containing foreign words could not be rushed so their inclusion would add to the consistency of the recitation time.