Saturday, 12 September 2009

Greater Celandine and Sutton's Cottage

Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a member of the Poppy family (Papaveraceae). It is quite common in urban areas but rarer in wilder places. It appears to have been introduced, from mainland Europe, at some time during the last few centuries, for its medicinal properties – in spite of the fact that it is very poisonous.

The sixteenth century herbalist, John Gerard gave a good description of it (1):

The great Celandine hath a tender brittle stalke, round, hairy, and full of branches, each whereof hath divers knees or knotty joints set with leaves not unlike to those of Columbine, but tenderer, and deeper cut or jagged, of a grayish green under, and greene on the other side tending to blewnesse: the floures grow at the top of the stalks, of a gold yellow colour, in shape like those of a Wal-floure: after which come long cods [seed pods] full of bleak or pale seeds: the whole plant is of a strong unpleasant smell, and yeeldeth a thicke juice of a milky substance, of the colour of Saffron [i.e. orange]: ...

He then repeats some weird myth about swallows using it to restore their sight and goes on to recommend it for eye problems. This too is a myth and a dangerous one - on no account should you allow any part of this plant anywhere near your eyes! In more recent times the juice of this plant was probably used for removing warts (2) – but I would suggest that if you’ve got a wart which needs removing you should see your doctor.

Greater Celandine occurs in a number of places around the Beech Road/Chorlton Green area, including my front garden on Brookburn Road (where it is ineradicable), an alley at the back of Beech Road and the corner of Beech Road and Wilton Road (around the launderette). The plants in this last location are different from the others because they are ‘double-flowered’. This means that they have more than the normal four petals giving them a ‘frilly’ appearance (see left hand photograph). I have often wondered how these particular plants came to be there – but local historian, Andrew Simpson, may have provided the answer in his description of the dwellings that used to occupy that very spot:

Sutton’s Cottage by Andrew Simpson (3)

Sutton’s Cottage was one of three which stood on the corner of Beech and Wilton Road. It may have been there from the beginning of the nineteenth century and was only demolished in 1891.
It was a wattle and daub building. These wooden houses were constructed from a timber framework. The horizontal beams were grooved so that a wall of branches woven like basketwork was made to fill the void. This wall was then covered with a mixture of clay, gravel, hay and even horse hair. Thatch was used for the roof. Such houses were easy to build and equally easy to maintain, but there could be disadvantages to living in them. If the walls were thick enough then they provided good insulation and kept the interior dry. But the porous nature of walls meant they were damp and crumbling clay meant endless repairs.

According to a Parliamentary report “Many of them have not been lined with lath and plaster inside and so are fearfully cold in winter. The walls may not be an inch in thickness and where the lathes are decayed the fingers may be easily pushed through. The roof is of thatch, which if kept in good repair forms a good covering, warm in winter and cool in summer, though doubtless in many instances served as harbour for vermin, for dirt, for the condensed exhalations from the bodies of the occupants of the bedrooms....

From 1851 and maybe earlier Sutton’s Cottage was home to Samuel and Sarah Sutton. He was from Dean Row [near Macclesfield] and she was from Withington. Their cottage was on land rented by William Bailey and so it is more than likely than Samuel worked for the Bailey family who ran the farm almost opposite. They brought up four children in the cottage and for most of the middle part of the century their neighbours in the other two cottages were the Beastons and the Cravens. Samuel died in 1881 but Sarah survived until 1890. It may be no coincidence that the cottages were demolished a year later. The name Sutton’s Cottage may well be a late addition. Earlier they were known as Laburnum Cottages and before that had no name.
Inspection of a surviving photograph of Sutton’s Cottage (see right hand photograph) shows it to have been surrounded by a hedge and behind that hedge was probably a typical English cottage garden. In one of her books (4) the great Somerset gardener, the late Margery Fish, tells us that, “Double flowers have always been popular with cottage gardeners” and she goes on to describe double Sweet Rocket, double Wallflowers, double Lady’s Smock, double Red Campion, double Stick Catchfly, double Buttercups double Violets etc., etc.
Double flowers are the result of mutations and more detail can be found in ref. 5. Unfortunately, Mrs Fish doesn’t mention double flowered Greater Celandine but it would seem that American gardeners still grow it and it appears to come true from seed (6).

So the question is: are the plants that appear every year, in varying numbers, near the Beech Road launderette, the descendants of those that Mrs Sutton planted in her cottage garden all those years ago – in effect her legacy? Well, given how persistent Greater Celandine is in my garden, it remains a distinct possibility.

Dave Bishop, September 2009, with thanks to Andrew Simpson


1. ‘Gerard’s Herbal: The Essence thereof distilled by Marcus Woodward from the Edition of Th. Johnson, 1636”, Bracken Books, 1985.

2. ‘Flora Britannica’ by Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996.

3. Personal Communication from Andrew Simpson, 9th September 2009.

4. ‘Cottage Garden Flowers’ by Margery Fish, faber and faber edition 1980 (first pub. 1961).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this double flowered celandine in my father-in-laws yard. Moved it up north & it survived 40 below zero nicely. It stayed compact& grew in a shady spot. I tried to bring a seedling with me & it didnt survive, I have been looking for this plant ever since. Do you know where I could purchase seeds for it? My emailis draeb@telus.net thank-you!