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Greater Celandine { Wild Flora and medicinal uses}

Updated on September 18, 2013

Greater celandine Chelidonium majus


The four petaled flower of the Greater celandine

Originally appeared on Flickr
Originally appeared on Flickr | Source


The Greater celandine belongs to the order of plants known as the Ranunculales but placed in the Family Papaveraceae {Poppy family}, they are given the genus name of Chelidonium which derives from the Greek word, meaning a swallow, it is supposed to flower when these birds arrive.

In Europe it is sometimes referred to as ' tetterwort' { although in America tetterwort refers to Sanguinaria canadensis } which is why the Latin name of Chelidonium majus helps alleviate the confusion and is universally recognized, and should be applied to the species.

In this article we will review the plants basic biology and life-cycle, and, despite its poisonous properties, its involvement with herbal medicinal preparations, used by herbalists in more archaic times. This plant should not be mistaken for the Lesser celandine of the buttercup family Ranunculus ficaria Pictured below.

As always an apt place to start this review is by a description of the plant.

The lesser celandine

 The petals of lesser celandine are much more numerous and the plant is much smaller than the plant under review {Creative Commons Attribtution Share Alike 3.0 unported license.
The petals of lesser celandine are much more numerous and the plant is much smaller than the plant under review {Creative Commons Attribtution Share Alike 3.0 unported license. | Source

Description of the Greater celandine

The root of this species is perennial, cylindrical and tapering and of a reddish brown colour. the stems are upright , branched, slightly hairy , brittle and they rise up to the height of one to two feet in height.

The foliage is arranged alternately, they are large, pinnated with from three to five decurrent leaflets, which are broadly ovate, lobed and crenated, the terminal one being the largest. they are generally three lobed, of a bright green colour above and glaucos below, the leaf stalks are hairy.

The flower stalks, instead of ending in one solitary flower which is the case with poppies, bear a cluster of four or five smaller ones. These are not more than one inch in diameter each with a small slender stalk of similar length, and as these radiate from a common center they form a umbel. The calyx {sepals etc} is inferior, consisting of two ovate, concave, entire sepals. The corolla {petals etc} is composed of four roundish, obtuse, spreading petals, placed in a cruciform manner and of a bright yellow colour. The stamens are numerous, shorter than the corrola with yellowish compressed filaments, and oblong -shaped erect anthers.

The fruit {seed capsule} is a long linear pod consisting of one cell and two valves, containing numerous globose, dark,shining seeds arranged in two rows, along a linear receptacle at each side of the pod, which is about one to one and a half inches long. They usually flower during mid April and blossom throughout the summer with only a few specimens encountered in flower until October.

At various points where the branches meet the stem they are swollen and jointed and may break very easily. The inexperienced, may through the petals being formed in the shape of a cross, mistake this plant for a member of the Crucifer {Brassica} family, but the dense mass of stamens, a feature never encountered in the latter family, would itself be sufficient to demonstrate that the plant has no such affinity.

The greater celandine, or swallow wort as it is sometimes referred to, is another yellow flowered member of the poppy family, which grows on hedge banks and in all sorts of waste corners. They were once commonly grown in Cottage gardens as a medicinal herb.

Components of the greater celandine

Billeder of Norden's Flora-Published  {1917-1927}
Billeder of Norden's Flora-Published {1917-1927}

Greater celandine and its poisonous properties

Although used medicinally it is well to realize the poisonous properties associated with this species. The juice of the plant is an acrid poison and is capable of producing some deleterious effects if improperly used. Orfila,found that, introduced into the stomach of animals,it produced vomiting, loss of sight and hearing, incapacity to stand and eventual death. The stomach was found to be inflated, and the lungs livid and distended with blood. When applied to wounds it produced the same effects, except that there was no vomiting and the stomach was not inflamed.

The history of Chelodium majus in herbal medicines and its past uses.

Historical records convey to us that Linnaeus, Murray, Gilbert and others expressed their astonishment at the oblivion into which a plant so energetic as this one had fallen. The Ancients knew how to appreciate its qualities. Dioscorides and Galen employed it infused with white wine to cure jaundice, the former with the addition of anise. Forestus gave it infused with beer, while Chomel recommended the leaves to be macerated in whey, to which a little cream of tartar was added.

Chomel states " I think it would be better to adopt the method used by Professor Wendt, he expresses the juice in summer, and mixes it with an equal quantity of honey. The dose which at first is two drachms, is gradually increased to half an ounce diluted with one or two spoonfuls of water. {this juice stains the hands a great deal}. " Chomel, continues " In spring and autumn he employs the juice of the root, and in winter he administers the extracts only, of which he forms two-grain pills. He commences by giving two, increasing the dose as far as ten, and continuing this quantity until the cure is effected"

However, the Professor, seems to have got a bit carried away with his praise of the plants virtues attributing his powers to treating not only jaundice, but also visceral obstructions, intermittent fevers and dropsies. he also recommended it as being extremely efficacious in scrofulous and syphilitic affections.

Dr. Scallern {1790} had employed celandine internally to cure diseases of the eyes. he flattered himself by stating that by this means he had prevented cataracts,dissipirated ophthalmia , removed specks and cured amaurosis.

Kramer recommended it to be used as tea in gouty and calculous affections. Tragus, so we are told, greatly extolled its virtues in contagious and malignant diseases. He stated that " A decoction of the root in vinegar , has been known to cure those attacked by the plague, if they kept themselves in bed,and took care not to check perspiration. It is esteemed a specific in the epidemic called the ' sweating sickness' in this country" {England}.

Records state that Geoffroy, mentions, that the expressed juice cleanses and heals wounds and ulcers. He likewise also recommended the juice as an application to specks and films of the cornea, and even to sound eyes that are weak. However, the British Flora Medica states unreservedly that "no persons with common sense would tamper with so delicate an organ"

Herbals of archaic times state that a poultice formed of the bruised leaves and stalks had been found useful in herpes, and as been extolled for curing the itch. Ettmuller, particularly recommended the application of this plant to those oedematous swellings of the feet which succeed to violent fevers and other several diseases.

The use of the plant as an external application was well known to country people as being efficacious in removing warts. The method of applying it was simple, break the stem or stalk and touch the affected parts with the yellow-orange juice that the plant exudes.

The whole plant in its fresh state exudes this juice which has a somewhat disagreeable odour, which has been compared as being like the smell of stale eggs. the bright colour of the plant and its juice led to some experiments being undertaken to see if it could be utilized as a dye, but no permanent colour could be obtained. Rossig, however, a German writer, asserts that by fermentation a good blue colour was precured similar to that of Isatis tinctoria.

An oinment was made of the roots and lard baked together, also the leaves and flowers have been used with advantage for the affliction commonly referred to as the piles, as was the unrelated Lesser celandine Ranunculus ficaria.

Modern day assessment of its medicinal properties.

Celandine is an irritant and caustic and contact with the skin, and especially so the eyes, should be avoided. The alkaloides in its sap inhibit cell replication making it effective against warts, verrucas and fungal infections.

The wrong or to high a dose have potential toxic properties thus the use of celandine should only be prepared and administered by professional herbalists. The caustic properties make it very dangerous to use in or near the eyes.

Illustration of the Greater Celandine

Familiar Wild Flowers {1887}
Familiar Wild Flowers {1887}


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, thank you I have always been aware of wild flora and their uses {and Dangers of certain species} and I have also been interested for as long as I can remember in their history which I find fascinating. best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      What another wonderful wild plant. I find all of this so wonderful, especially with the excellent history that you always manage to find.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika , thanks for being the first to visit and for leaving your usual kind comments. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Wild Flora and medicinal uses}very interesting about Celandine I certainly had no idea of this plant valuable information and I found The history of Chelodium majus in herbal medicines and its past uses to be most useful, voted up and interesting


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