How to Identify Greater Celandine (Papaveraceae family)

Learn how to identify greater celandine, then discover its medicinal uses.

Some plants teach us that appearances as well as common plant names can deceive us. This herb may seem at first glance to be a member of the edible mustard family. But as you quickly learn to identify greater celandine, it will become apparant why it is a member of the poppy family.

This biennial / short lived perennial herb was probably introduced to Britain by the Romans, as part of their medicine cabinet.

What’s in a name?

The generic part of the scientific name Chelidonium is from an ancient Greek word ‘khelidõn’, the name given to the swallow bird.

For a long time people have studied the timing and appearance of flowers and wildlife. With celandine, we noticed thousands of years ago that the first swallow sightings in the spring coincide with the opening of its first flowers.

Greater celandine flowers open around the same time as the swallows arrive from Africa.
Greater celandine flowers open around the same time as swallows arrive from Africa.

From my vantage point in southern England, this has proven to be true in 2021. Its flowers started appearing in the week before I saw my first swallow of the season. Swallow wort is an old common name for the plant.

The specific part of the name, majus, is from an old Latin word meaning ‘bigger’ or ‘greater’.

Our common name is simply a mutated word straight from the old Greek name. The lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) is unrelated to greater celandine. I think that some prudish people didn’t like the other common name for lesser celandine – pilewort – so began also referring to the buttercup family plant as celandine, simply because of its yellow flowers.

Botanical description

Leaves: Large grey-green pinnate leaves, 15 to 35 cm long. Usually a blue-green colour below.

Greater celandine has a pinnate leaf, with hairs on the midrib
Greater celandine has pinnate, lobed leaves, with hairs on the midrib.

Typically, greater celandine has 4 to 5 pairs of oval-oblong leaflets. The larger terminal leaflet is usually 3- lobed. The leaflets generally curl upwards.

Greater celandine's petiole is white and hairy
Greater celandine’s midrib is white and hairy.

The leaflets are mostly hairless, but occasionally have white hairs. The white-ish midribs are noticeably hairy. Its leaf margins are crenated.

Celandine's crenated leaflet lobes, curling upwards.
Celandine’s frilly-looking crenated leaflets. The margins curl upwards.

 

Petioles: The brittle, hairy, and hollow petioles snap easily, to reveal abundant orange-yellow latex. This feature will help you enormously when learning how to identify greater celandine from possible lookalikes.

 

Roots: A conical taproot with numerous lateral branches.

 

Stems: The round stems can reach up to 90 cm and more. Hairy at the leaf nodes, and towards the base. The stems bleed lots of latex when snapped.

The orange-yellow latex is a key feature when learning to identify greater celandine,
Orange-yellow latex flows through greater celandine.

 

Flowers: Its flower buds are very hairy. The resultant umbel type inflorescence usually shows 6 – 9 flowers per umbel.

Pubescent flower buds soon expand into umbels of 6 -9 flowers.

Celandine flowers are around 12 – 25 mm diameter and a lovely bright butter yellow colour. They are pollinated by tiny flies who love the abundance of pollen

 

Greater celandine has four untidy looking butter-yellow petals and a mass of yellow stamens.
Shiny butter-yellow petals and a mass of yellow stamens.

Each flower has two sepals (falling as the flower opens), four petals, and approximately 15 – 30 stamens surrounding the pistil. The numerous stamens and fused carpels, tell us its not a brassica herb.

 

 

Flowering season: You will find celandine flowering at the end of April, continuing through the summer into late September.

The petals, like the leaflets, can often curl upwards.

The flowers are smaller than other members of the family, such as the Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica), helping you to positively identify it.

The larger yellow flower heads of the Welsh popoy
The larger yellow flower heads of the Welsh poppy.

 

Fruits: The fruits are thin and almost cylindrical. They contain numerous small black seeds.

Celandine flowers soon produce thin, cylindrical seed pods
Celandine flowers soon produce thin, cylindrical seed pods.

Industrious ants then spread the seeds around. They love eating the fleshy little seed attachment.

Habitats: This plant loves wastegrounds, roadsides, neglected garden borders, hedges, and various crevices in old walls and paths in urban settings. As a former well-used medicinal herb, many populations are found near human habitations.

Parts used: Leaves and flowering tops.

Harvesting: Where possible, take the leaves and flowering stems from diferent specimens, to reduce your impact. My guide to harvesting wild plants gives you many tips and tricks for best results.

 

Edible uses: None.

 

Medicinal uses: The herb is used across the world. Its constituents display a range of actions, making it useful for a number of conditions, both internally and externally.

Greater celandine features in the proprietory blend of nine herbs called ‘Iberogast’, successfully used to treat irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia.

But because the herb has provoked adverse reactions (as do many drugs) in 2008 the E.U refused to grant it ‘traditional use’ status to use internally. Following Brexit, I wonder quite where it leaves Herbalists in the UK.

One of its major topical uses is in the treatment of warts, veruca’s and corns. The latex contains many alkaloids and irritant compounds that kill the virus in infected cells. Care is needed to avoid any other skin contact.

Its worth repeating here that a) dose is always critical, b) you should always seek professional healthcare advice before taking anything, and c) any new wild plant you are planning to introduce into your body as food or medicine, needs to be done slowy. Your tolerance always needs testing.

 

If you have any questions  about this article or any other of the 72 species now covered, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Coming soon, my latest monthly at-a-glance wild food guide. Foraging in May.

Happy foraging!

 

 

 

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