Chelidonia, one of the earliest plants to bloom in spring, grows both in uncultivated areas and in thickets. Its vivid yellow flowers are gathered in terminal umbels and have four petals and 2 short-lived sepals. This herb has an upright branchy stalk as high as 80 cm; its leaves are jagged and pinnatisect. Whenever one of its fragile stems is broken, a yellow latex, rich in active substance, comes out.
Chelidonia, whose Latin name is Chelidonium, is named after chelidòn, the Greek word for swallow. Indeed, celandine begins to bloom when swallows return. Moreover, in ancient times the swallow was said to use this plant's latex to strengthen its chicks' poor sight.
According to a tradition handed down from Pliny and Aristotle, it was generally believed that newborn swallows were blind, so their mothers dropped celandine juice in their eyes in order to "heal" them.
This latex soon interested all those who believed in the "theory of signs", according to which Nature always showed signs that were helpful as far as man's health was concerned.
The yellow latex of chelidonia, then, was said to resemble biliary juices. As a consequence, it had to be of some use to open liver occlusions.
The most sensational statements about the use of this plant are to be found, however, in a famous testamentum (memory) left by a Franciscan monk, Raimondo Lullo, in the 14th century. Lullo maintained that he had discovered no less than the art of resuscitating the dead ("il magistero di resuscitare i morti") by means of chelidonia quintessence...
Leaving aside Lullo's mystic fantasies, it is true to say that celandine has always played an important role in thaumaturgic rituals. Actually, its latex was known as "witch's milk" because it was and still is employed to heal verrucae.
This led to in-depth studies that revealed the presence in the plant of an alkaloid featuring a certain antiblastic activity and an evident antifungal action: celandine juice, then, was recommended in the treatment of skin diseases like the verrucae.
Moreover, the firm belief in the healing properties this plant was supposed to have as far as liver occlusions were concerned had scientists to investigate further. They discovered another alkaloid, which was able to act on the tone of non-striated muscles.
The idea of an employment of this substance in the treatment of cholecystopathy and gallstones came from the analogy discovered between this alkaloid and those present in poppy.
Further studies have been carried out on these substances. They have revealed the existence of a stimulating action on medullar centres.
Overdoses can take to a complete paralysis of respiratory and vasomotor muscles. Clearly, then, celandine must be used carefully as it can turn into a lethal poison.
by Dr. Ernesto Riva