Just like all that glitters is not gold, all spring greens are not edible. It’s useful to be able to identify both tasty and toxic species, and today I want to look at a PEI plant in the latter category: Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus).
This is one of our few members of the Poppy Family (Papaveraceae), and – like its relatives – it’s not all that common on the Island. Greater Celandine is a European plant and a relative newcomer to our flora, having been first confirmed on PEI in the 1950s. It was brought to North America much earlier than this, likely in the 1700s as a medicinal plant. Since that time, it’s been spread by people and become naturalized.
Although the young leaves may look like they’d be a nice addition to salads (Photo 1), the entire plant is toxic. For more than 2,000 years Greater Celandine has been used to treat warts, eye ailments, jaundice, and liver disease. Ironically, in recent years Greater Celandine has been linked to many cases of acute hepatitis (liver damage). Consuming this plant can cause symptoms including nausea, abdominal pain and swelling, coma, and death. Fortunately, it smells bad, tastes worse, and is easy to identify and avoid.
Greater Celandine can be found along urban trails and in other disturbed habitats on the Island. Each leaf is compound with five to nine lobed leaflets and long, soft white hairs (Photo 2). Its most distinctive feature is the bright orange sap which you can see anywhere you break the plant (Photo 3). This sap has been found to have at least 70 different bioactive compounds and research is ongoing into its potential uses in antibacterial wound dressing, antiviral drugs, and anti-cancer treatments. It can also cause skin irritation and be very painful if it contacts your eyes, so be careful if handling this plant.
Greater Celandine is not a plant you want in your kitchen but keep an eye out for this interesting part of PEI untamed!