Celandine (greater And Lesser)

This latter flower is a conspicuous herald of spring, which is

strikingly welcome to everyone living in the country throughout

England, and a stranger to none. The Pilewort, or lesser Celandine,

bespangles all our banks with its brilliant, glossy, golden stars,

coming into blossom on or about March 7th, St. Perpetua's day.

They are a timely tocsin for five o'clock tea, because punctually at

that hour they shut up their
showy petals until 9.0 a.m. on the

following morning. The well-known little herb, with its heart-shaped

leaves, is a Ranunculus, and bears the affix ficaria from

its curative value in the malady called ficus--a red sore in the

fundament. (Littleton, 1684).

[91] The popular title, Pilewort, from Pila, a ball, was probably

first acquired because, after the doctrine of signatures, the small

oval tubercles attached to its stringy roots were supposed to

resemble and to cure piles. Nevertheless, it has been since proved

practically that the whole plant, when bruised and made into an

ointment with fresh lard, is really useful for healing piles; as

likewise when applied to the part in the form of a poultice or hot

fomentation. There be those also who thinke that if the herbe be

but carried about by one that hath the piles the paine forthwith

ceaseth. It has sometimes happened that the small white tubercles

collected about the roots of the plant, when washed bare by heavy

rains, and lying free on the ground, have given rise to a supposed

shower of wheat. After flowering the Pilewort withdraws its

substance of leaf and stem into a small rounded tube underground,

so as to withstand the heat of summer, and the cold of the

subsequent winter.

With the acrid juice of this herb, and of others belonging to the

same Ranunculous order, beggars in England used to produce

sores about their body for the sake of exciting pity, and getting

alms. They afterwards cured these sores by applying fresh mullein

leaves to heal them. The lesser Celandine furnishes a golden

yellow volatile oil, which is readily converted into anemonic acid.

Wordsworth specially loved this lesser Celandine, and turned his

lyre to sing its praises:--

There is a flower that shall be mine,

'Tis the little Celandine;

I will sing as doth behove

Hymns in praise of what I love.

In token of which affectionate regard these flowers have been

carved on the white marble of his tomb.

[92] The greater Celandine, or Coeli donum (Chelidonium

majus), though growing freely in our waste places and hedgerows,

is, perhaps, scarcely so well known as its diminutive namesake.

Yet most persons acquainted with our ordinary rural plants

have repeatedly come across this conspicuous herb, which

exudes a bright yellow juice when bruised. It has sharply cut vivid

leaves of a dull green, with a small blossom of brilliant yellow,

and is not altogether unlike a buttercup, though growing to the

height of a couple of feet. But this Celandine belongs to the Poppy

tribe, whilst the Buttercup is a Ranunculus. The technical name of

the greater Celandine (Chelidonium) comes from the Greek

word Chelidon, a swallow, because of an ancient tradition that

the bird makes use of this herb to open the eyes of its young, or to

restore their sight when it has been lost:--

Caecatis pullis hac lumina mater hirundo

(Plinius ut scripsit) quamvis sint eruta, reddit.

The ancients entertained a strong belief that birds are gifted with a

knowledge of herbs; the woodpecker, for instance, seeking out the

Springwort to remove obstructions, and the linnet making use of

the Eyebright to restore its vision.

Queen Elizabeth in the forty-sixth year of her age was attacked

with such a grievous toothache that she could obtain no rest by

night or day because of the torture she endured. The lords of her

council decided on sending for an outlandish physician named

Penatus, who was famous for curing this agonising pain. He

advised that when all was said and done, if the tooth was hollow, it

were best to have it drawn; but as Her Majesty could not bring

herself to submit to the use of [93] chirugical instruments, he

suggested that the Chelidonius major--our greater Celandine--

should be put into the tooth, and this stopped with wax, which

would so loosen the tooth that in a short time it might be pulled

out with the fingers. Aylmer, Bishop of London, tried to

encourage the Queen by telling her that though he was an old man,

and had not many teeth to spare, she should see a practical

experiment made on himself. Thereupon he bade the surgeon who

was in attendance extract one of his teeth in Her Majesty's


This plant, the Chelidonium majus, is still used in Suffolk for

toothache by way of fomentation. It goes also by the name of

Fenugreek (Foenum Groecum), Yellow Spit, Grecian Hay,

and by that of Tetterwort. The root contains chemically chelidonin

and sanguinarin.

On the doctrine of signatures the herb, because of its bright

orange-coloured juice, was formerly believed to be curative of

jaundice. A medicinal tincture (H.) made from the entire plant

with spirit of wine is at the present time held in high esteem by

many physicians for overcoming torpid conditions of the liver. Eight

or ten drops of this tincture, or of the fresh juice of the plant,

may be given for a dose three times in the day in sweetened water

when bilious yellowness of the skin is present, with itching, and

with clayey stools, dark thick urine, constipation, and a pain in the

right shoulder; also for neuralgia of the head and face on the right

side. It is certainly remarkable that though the fanciful theory of

choosing curative plants by their signatures has been long since

exploded, yet doctors of to-day select several yellow medicines for

treating biliary disorders--to wit, this greater Celandine with its

ochreous juice; the Yellow Barberry; the Dandelion; [94] the

Golden Seal (Hydrastis); the Marigold; Orange; Saffron; and

Tomato. Animals poisoned by the greater Celandine have developed

active and pernicious congestion of the lungs and liver.

Clusius found by experience that the juice of the greater

Celandine, when squeezed into small green wounds of what sort

so ever, wonderfully cured them. If the juice to the bigness of a

pin's head be dropped into the eye in the morning in bed, it takes

away outward specks, and stops incipient suffusions. Also if the

yellow juice is applied to warts, or to corns, first gently scraped,

it will cure them promptly and painlessly. The greater Celandine is

by genus closely allied to the horned Poppy which grows so

abundantly on our coasts. Its tincture given in small doses proves

of considerable service in whooping-cough when very spasmodic.

Curious remedies for this complaint have found rustic favour: in

Yorkshire owl broth is considered to be a specific; again in

Gloucestershire a roasted mouse is given to be eaten by the

patient; and in Staffordshire the child is made to look at the new

moon whilst the right hand of the nurse is rubbed up and down its

bare belly.