Celandine (greater)

There was a strange and cheerful plant that showed up in my father’s garden one year. At first there was only one, proudly crowning the top of the compost heap that dad hadn’t gotten around to turning yet. As it turns out, that was the advance scout. Soon the whole vegetable patch was in a pitched battle with this sunny broadleaf weed. Happily, my father was a hippy professor ahead of his time, and refused to use chemical pesticides. Unfortunately, it meant much of my summer was spent pulling out this tenacious little opportunists who stained my hands yellow with its sticky sap. We had no idea what the stuff was, so I dubbed it “Yellow Root.” To this day, it retains a small foothold on that plot of NJ dirt, but never quite to the degree it did that first summer.

In a way, “Yellow Root” was what first spurred my interest in plant lore. For years, I wondered what it was really called, but couldn’t find out the answer. No one was interested in the name of some weird little weed. But I played with it, got to know it, crushing the roots to make dye, using the leaves in childhood potions. Eventually I did find out what it was, but it was a journey that took me far from home.

The answer to my question lay thousands of miles away in a French cloister that had been replanted with period vegetables and herbs. It was in the poisonous/medicinal section that I saw something which looked like my yellow-rooted plant from NJ. I just had to know, so I waited until my parents had gone around the corner, stepped over the low fence, and plucked a leaf. Lo and behold, the same telltale yellow sap welled up from the break in the stem. I now had a name, courtesy of the little plaque stabbed into the dirt in front of the plant: Chelidonium majus.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, for the first time in this series I actually agree with Cunningham! He associates celandine with both Sun and Fire, and I an firmly in accord with him on both points (2003, 77). He goes on to say that it can be used for protection, escape, happiness, and legal matters. I would use caution, as personally I think of celandine as an agent of truth—so if law and right are on your side, by all means carry some around with you. Otherwise, it may end up bringing any unpleasant truths to light. (As a side note, if you work with celandine magically, wear gloves and keep it in a satchel as its sap can be a skin irritant; it is also poisonous, so use caution.) Meanwhile Beyerl asserts that there is no magical tradition associated with it (1984, 78), so intuition is a must when working with this herb.

And next week, another sunny, fiery weed: dandelion!

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