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A practitioner-only herb with significant potential in modern herbal therapy

Greater celandine

Chelidonium majus Papaveraceae

This member of the poppy family has a bright orange latex that has a long history of topical use on warts.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Intestinal colic
  • Gall bladder pain and inflammation
  • Warts, verrucae and other skin conditions
  • How does it feel?

    The bitter, acrid and pungent taste which is likely to come from the alkaloids, tends to linger and is not that pleasant. It feels drying and cooling.

  • What can I use it for?

    Greater celandine is classed as a poison and thus in the UK it is legally restricted for use by qualified herbalists and medical doctors. In Western herbal medicine it is primarily used for conditions affecting the skin, such as warts or verrucae and within the digestive system.  In particular it is indicated for the liver and gall bladder, especially in cases of where there is pain caused by spasm, as in cholecystitis (inflamed gall bladder) or gall stones.  It is more likely to be used short-term in combination with other herbs for such presentations.

  • Into the heart of greater celandine

    Greater celandine has enjoyed widespread use both in folk medicine and also in modern European herbal   and traditional Chinese medicine, however for some time only patchy research had been carried out on this interesting herb compared to some of the others within our Materia Medica, (our range of medicinal herbs and the collected knowledge of their therapeutic properties).

    More recently some interesting work has been done on both whole plant extracts and a number of Greater celandine’s alkaloids with promising results for anti-microbial effects on drug-resistant strains of certain fungi and bacteria.

    Whilst more research on the various claims for Greater celandine is required, this may go some way towards bringing this herb that is brimming with potential back into the fold for many herbalists.

  • Traditional uses

    It has a long history of topical use as a wart medicine, the stem of the plant being broken and the latex applied directly to the wart. The latex was also used for a number of other skin conditions such as ringworm, eczema and ulceration.

    The juice was squeezed into ‘green’ (infected) wounds and In Russia a watery extract was blended with lard and used as a topical application for psoriasis (2).

    One of the best known uses for Greater celandine was as a remedy for jaundice and liver diseases, in particular spasm in the gall bladder or bile ducts. In Poland a common practice was to give children with jaundice a celandine bath along with a drink of the infusion (3).

    It has been used in Greece as a diuretic, as a remedy for gout in Serbia and as an antidote for snake venom in Romania.

    One of the first recorded uses of greater celandine was in eye diseases, used to clear cloudiness from the eyes and for soreness. Fresh juice was used mixed with milk, vinegar or rosewater to quell the irritation that could occur with the pure juice (4).

    It is important to state that the plant is not generally used in this way in modern times and certainly should not be tried as an alternative to seeking professional specialist help for eye problems.

    Traditionally it has been used in a number of European countries for cancer and continues to be used for such in Russia and Ukraine (5,6). Refer to the Evidence section for further information.

    Uses in Traditional Chinese medicine include chronic bronchitis and whooping cough, digestive pain and stomach ulcers.

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Caution is key when prescribing this alkaloid-containing plant.

    Digestive system including the liver: Greater celandine is used in conditions of spasm, pain and inflammation in the gut. The alkaloids within the plant having a relaxing effect on the gut and duct walls. After a careful evaluation by the practitioner of the patient it is used in certain cases of jaundice, biliary colic from gall stones and other conditions arising from poor liver function, often in combination with other herbs.

    Topical use: Greater celandine is still very much in use as a topical application for cases of warts and verrucae, however it is also used for eczema, (both externally and internally) in part due to the action it has on the liver by increasing the production and flow of bile.  It is also applied to fungal growths, corns, haemorrhoids and indolent ulcers. One needs to avoid the healthy surrounding skin when applying.

    Anti-microbial effects: In addition to the antifungal and antiviral effects when applied to the skin, there is growing interest in the internal use of Greater celandine to treat certain pathogenic microbes, including some drug-resistant bacteria and fungi.

  • Research

    The German Commission E, which is the scientific advisory board of the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, supports the use of Greater celandine in treatment of spasm and pain in the bile ducts and gastrointestinal tract (7).

    Some of the isoquinoline alkaloids within Chelidonium (berberine, sanguinarine, chelerythrine), have been shown to possess anticancer activity in vitro including cell cycle arrest, apoptosis and autophagy, (all ways to stop a cell from duplicating and dividing – important actions in targeting cancer cells). These effects are at least in part attributed to the isoquinoline alkaloids within Greater celandine binding to DNA or proteins, inhibiting certain enzymatic activity or epigenetic modulation (something that modifies the activation of a gene but not the genetic code sequence of DNA). This suggests their use as a potential therapeutic agent for cancer. This promising work was done on the isolated isoquinolines as opposed to the whole plant and further studies are needed to explore the underlying mechanisms (8).

    Data from a number of randomised clinical trials suggests that a semi-synthetic compound called Ukrain derived from Greater celandine but having highly concentrated levels of isoquinoline alkaloids and often used intravenously in Ukraine and some other eastern European countries may have potential as an anticancer therapy. The research suggests that Ukrain is pharmacologically active and clinically effective, however a systematic review carried out in 2005 concluded that the quality of the methodology and interpretation of most of the studies was poor and the authors advised that more rigorous and independent studies with larger cohorts are required (9).

    Extracts of Greater celandine have been shown to possess antibacterial and antifungal activity across a number of microbes. Interestingly, the aerial parts of the plant which are more often used in herbal practice contain lower levels of the isoquinoline alkaloids than the root, however all tested plant extracts manifested antimicrobial activity, with the root more strongly reducing bacterial biomass (10). Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa were used in this work, two very problematic bacteria in terms of their multi-drug resistance and notoriety in causing hospital-acquired infections.

    A significant antifungal effect against Candida albicans was observed when the isolated alkaloids or whole extracts of the aerial parts of the plant were used.

    Greater celandine extracts were found to be active against biofilm forms of a multi-drug-resistant clinical strain of Helicobacter pylori (H.pylori), however in the concentrations used there was evidence of cytotoxicity against human hepatocytes (liver cells) so the strength of the extract was lowered by using it synergistically with a synthetic antimicrobial and applying a bacterial cellulose drug carrier, (a pure form of cellulose used to modify the release of a drug). The work demonstrated synergistic interactions with amoxycillin amongst other agents. There was a several-fold decrease in the level of H.pylori biofilm indicating that the application of extracts from Greater celandine combined with certain synthetic antimicrobials absorbed into a cellulose carrier may be a promising method for treating this stealth pathogen (11).

    These works afford us a deeper insight into the medicinal activities of this fascinating plant and show it has significant potential beyond many of its current uses.

  • Did you know?

    Chelidon is Greek for the Swallow. Dioscorides stated that the Greater celandine starts flowering when the first swallows arrive and withers when they depart.

    It was also believed that swallows applied it to the eyes of their young chicks.

    Gerard the herbalist noted in a very descriptive manner that “The juice of the herbe is good to sharpen the sight, for it cleanseth and consumeth away slimie things that cleave about the ball of the eye and hinder the sight and especially being boiled with honey in a brasen vessell”.

    According to the doctrine of signatures (an ancient and broad concept that a medicinal plant’s appearance or features will help to manage or cure a body part or condition that the plant resembles. The sap of greater celandine along with the flowers resembles bile in colour, so this was seen as a sign of a remedy for liver disorders.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    This cheery-looking perennial herb has a general appearance not dissimilar to the Himalayan poppies (Meconopsis species) to which it is closely related, however the four-petalled flowers which appear from early summer are a smaller, sunny lemon-yellow version rather than the blue of many Meconopsis species.

    Native to temperate Eurasia Greater celandine grows to a height of between 30 and 90 cm. It flourishes on waste ground near human habitation and can be found along hedgerows and walls. The deeply lobed leaves are a fresh green colour.

    The long, slender capsules contain small black seeds with a white crest. In all parts of the plant but especially the stem and rhizome there are lactiferous channels which contain the bright orange sap.

    It shares the common name Celandine with Fica verna – the Lesser celandine, however it is not related. 

    Flowering plants are harvested in the summer.

  • Common names

    • Greater celandine
    • Swallow wort
    • Tetterwort
    • Devil’s milk
  • Safety

    In the UK Greater celandine falls under the legislation for Human Use Regulations 2012 within the schedule 20 part 2 herbs. This means that it is a practitioner-only medicine and has maximum weekly and single doses (12).

    Contraindicated in pregnancy and breastfeeding and in those with pre-existing liver disease.

    Greater celandine is not recommended to be taken alongside the heavy use of alcohol.

    It is a poison, albeit of lower toxicity compared to many other Schedule 20 practitioner-only medicinal herbs, so extreme caution is required when prescribing.

    Long term use of this herb is not recommended due to the high levels of alkaloids. It is purgative in high doses. If the latex is used externally on a wart or verruca it is important to avoid getting it on the surrounding healthy skin.

    There have been a number of reported cases of hepatotoxicity with ingestion of Greater celandine, which underlines the requirement to seek the advice of an experience practitioner.

  • Dosage

    Maximum 2g per single dose. Maximum 6g per day dried or as infusion.

    6-12g per day dried aerial parts or by infusion (7)

    6-12ml per day of a 1:10 strength tincture.

    Note: The higher doses in the range are only recommended short-term for acute presentations (13).

  • Constituents

    • Isoquinoline alkaloids, of which the major ones include: chelidonine, chelerythrine, sanguinarine, berberine and coptisine
    • Flavonoids – derivatives of kaempferol, querectin and isorhamnetin
    • Proteins, including chelidocystatin (1)
greater celandine illustration
  • References

    1. European Medicines agency 2010 Committee on herbal medicinal products: Draft assessment report: Chelidonium majus L. https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/documents/herbal-report/draft- ssessment-report-chelidonium-majus-l-herba_en.pdf. Accessed 3.10.21.
    2. H.H Zeylstra, Circa ’95 Chelidonium majus monograph for the College of Phytotherapy.
    3. Kujawska M., Łuczaj Ł., Sosnowska J., Klepacki P. (2016). Plants in folk beliefs and customs: Adam Fischer’s dictionary. Tom XXXVII, Wrocław, 367–368.
    4. Barton B. H., Castle T. (1845). The British Flora Medica, or History of the Medicinal Plants of Great Britain. London: E. Cox.
    5. Zeilinska, S et al (2018): Greater Celandine’s Ups and Downs−21 Centuries of Medicinal Uses of Chelidonium majus From the Viewpoint of Today’s Pharmacology. Frontiers in Pharmacology: 9,299.
    6. Grieve, M (1931): A Modern Herbal. Tiger press. Ed 1992. ISBN 1-83-5501-249-9
    7. Blumenthal M et al eds: The complete German E monographs: Therapeutic guide to herbal medicines, Audtin 1998. American Botanical Council.
    8. Dahye, Y et al (2021): The anticancer effect of natural plant alkaloid isoquinolines. Int. Journal of Molecular Sciences: 22, 1653
    9. Ernst, E, Schmidt, K (2005): Ukrain – a new cancer cure? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials. BMC Cancer 5, 69. 
    10. Zielinska, S et al (2019): The activity of isoquinoline alkaloids and extracts from Chelidonium majus against pathogenic bacteria and candida sp. Toxins 11(7): 406
    11. Krzyzek,, P et al (2021): Antibiofilm and antimicrobial-enhancing activity of Cheldonium majus and Corydalis cheilanthifolia extracts against multidrug-resistant Helicobacter pylori. 10 (8): 1033
    12. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-banned-or-restricted-herbal-ingredients-for-medicinal-use/banned-and-restricted-herbal-ingredients. Accessed 5.9.21
    13. Mills, K and Bone, S (2005): The Essential guide to Herbal Safety. Elsevier. 0-443-07171-3 https://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/doctrine-signatures. Accessed 30.8.21
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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