Greater celandine, also known as swallow wort, is a common flowering plant in the poppy family and unrelated to the similarly-named Lesser celandine.
Chelidonium majus, derived from ‘chelidon’ the ancient Greek word for swallow, has long had an association with the migratory birds as well as various eye remedies and other uses. Whilst weeding at the city farm a couple of weeks ago we discovered that the plant contains a brilliant orange-coloured sticky sap which is visible in the leaves, stems and roots. From this, it’s not hard to see why it acquired the common name of ‘Devil’s milk’. It was such a vivid colour that we all commented on it and speculated about its use as a dye (it does indeed produce a warm, buttery yellow dye).
Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder held to the belief that mother swallows dropped the juice of the celandine into the eyes of their blind fledglings to restore their sight.* Others connected the flowering of Greater celandines with the arrival of the first swallows and there are various ancient references to its reputation for treating eye ailments and sharpening the sight. Bird, plant and its curative powers have been interwoven for centuries.
It didn’t stop with eyes though and it was also used to treat warts, jaundice and a host of other medical complaints. If you were a medieval monk you might also have used it as a substitute for gold when creating illuminated manuscripts. So indeed all that glitters is not gold, but could instead be Greater celandine.
If you’re planning to dig any up though it’s probably a good idea to wear gloves – the orange sap can burn the skin and all parts of the plant are considered highly poisonous.
*This makes me think of the rare flower that is the cause of much mayhem and confusion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when Oberon, king of the fairies squeezes a drop of the flower’s juice onto Titania’s eyes while she sleeps. Here, instead of restored sight, the result is to cause her to fall in love with the first living thing she sets eyes on, in this case the hapless Bottom who has been transformed into an ass.