Swallows and Celandines

What possible link could there be between celandines and swallows? The answer is stranger than you could possibly guess!

Chelidonium majus

It was whilst reading Fletcher’s Folly, one of H.L.V. Fletcher’s delightful ‘books of gardening gossip’ that I came across this very odd fact; for thousands of years people genuinely believed that swallows used the celandine to cure blindness in their chicks.

My first thought was that this couldn’t be so from a timing perspective, let alone anything else, because the celandine flowers in late winter and has pretty much disappeared by the time the first swallows are heralded in The Times (do they still do that?), let alone have any blind chicks in need of a cure. This however, was simply ignorance on my part – the celandine in question is the Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus), which flowers in summer and is a member of the poppy family, not the Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna subsp verna) which belongs to the Ranunculaceae.

In fact, the Greater Celandine gets its name from the Greek word for Swallow, Chelidon and one of its common names is the Swallow Wort.

The idea that Swallows would actually use this herb to cure their blind chicks, if indeed that is a problem for them, goes way back. This is what Dioscorides wrote in the first century AD:

It seems to be called Chelidonia because it springs out of the ground together with ye swallows appearing, & doth wither with them departing. Somme have related that if any of the swallowes’ young ones be blinde, the dames bringing this herbe, doe heale the blindness of it.

Even the great Aristotle seems to have believed that the Swallow could perform this amazing restoration, but by the time of John Gerard’s Herball (1597), disbelief is growing:

It is called Celandine, not because it then first springeth at the coming in of the Swallows, or dieth when they go away: for as we have said, it may be found all the year, but because some hold opinion, that with this herb the dams restore sight to their young ones when their eyes be out: the which things are vain and false; for Cornelius Celsus in his sixth book doth witness, that when the sight of the eyes of divers young birds be put forth by same outward means, it will after a time be restored of itself, and soonest of all the sight of the Swallow, whereupon (as the same author saith) that the tale or fable grew, how through an herb the dams restore that thing, which healeth of itself: the very same doth Aristotle allege in the sixth book of the History of Living Creatures: The eyes of Swallows (saith he) that are not fledged, if a man do prick them out, do grow again, and afterwards do perfectly recover their sight.

In fact, all swallows are born blind and develop their sight as chicks, which ismaybe where the idea that their sight needs to be restored originates. I doubt that their eyes, once plucked out, would regrow, though. If you are wondering at this point, why anyone would want to pluck out the eyes of a small bird, you may be horrified to learn that it was common practice until quite recently to prick out the eyes of caged songbirds, in the belief that it made them sing better. But swallows?

Aristotle, although regarded as the father of scientific study, did make mistakes. He said that men have more teeth than women and that flies have four legs. In both cases a bit of simple counting would have been a relatively simple task. So great was the esteem in which he was held that authors repeated that ‘fact’ that flies have four legs for a thousand years. It is therefore no great surprise that the belief that Swallows cured their blind chicks with Celandine survived so long, given how hard it would be to make sure.

Celandine, even though it is an irritant, was believed to be a herb of value for restoring clarity of sight.  Some went even further with their claims for the plant, this is from the 16th Century  Book of Secrets, supposedly written in the 13th Century by St Albertus Magnus:

If any man shall have this herb, with the heart of a Mole, he shall overcome all his enemies, and all matters In suit, and shall put away all debate. And if the before named herb be put upon the head of a sick man, if he should live, he shall sing anon with a loud voice, if not, he shall weep.

It has been suggested in the past that the whole association between Swallows and Celandines arose by chance, through a similarity of their names.

Perhaps that sits more comfortably with our modern view of the world, but if you should spot a Swallow wiping the eyes of her chicks, possibly through the lens of your webcam, I’d say a letter to The Times would probably be in order.

Brian Hackett

Image courtesy of the HPS Image Library

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