I have never seen a Greater Celandine flowering in the countryside but I have often seen it in town. The photo here was taken down an alley in Honiton.
A member of the poppy family with the typical four petalled flower and hairy stems, it is a perennial that grows almost a metre high. The tiny black seeds have an oil gland that ants love and they spread the seeds. Greater Celandine has a vast range growing from Britain to Mongolia.
Unlike many plants whose names are recent inventions Celandine is mentioned in the 1st century BC by Pedanius Dioscorides a Roman army surgeon. He said the name comes from the Greek for swallow and that it begins to flower when swallows arrive and stops when they leave. That is true in Britain today as it flowers from May till September.
It is a mystery how the name was also given to the Lesser Celandine which flowers in February and has five or more shiny yellow petals
Greater Celandine has orange sap that has been used to burn away warts and corns, but it was also used in eye complaints. Gerard the 16th C herbalist called it swallow wort saying, “it cleanseth and consumeth awaie slimie things that cleave about the ball of the eie and hinder the sight.” The sap is very caustic, please don’t try it.
It is said the heartland of the flower is Oxford and there is a carving of Greater Celandine as a healing herb in the stonework of the Christ Church Cathedral. St Frideswide is the patron saint of Oxford. She was a 7thC Saxon princess and nun who hid for three years to avoid an arranged marriage with King Algar of Leicester. Her suitor was struck blind as he pursued her, but he was cured by her forgiveness.
It is said that St Frideswide caused a healing well to rise up by the church at Binsey. The well still runs today in the village just north of Oxford. St Frideswide was buried in a shrine at her nunnery but in 1002 this was burnt down by Danes. A new shrine was included in a Norman church built in around 1289, this included carvings of Frideswide hiding from King Algar among leaves of spiritual and medicinal plants.
The church was enlarged and elevated to Christ Church Cathedral by Cardinal Wolsey in 1528. St Frideswide’s church became the Lady Chapel. The shrine was broken up during the Reformation, but it has been reconstructed, with its carvings, and can be seen in the north choir aisle.
Image and Text: Steve Jones
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