There are many different species of hellebores and rightly so, because these beautiful plants flower throughout winter and into spring, just when we need a splash of colour and intrigue in our gardens. And intriguing they are. Helleborus niger, commonly known as the Christmas rose or black hellebore, produces pure white, waxy flowers from mid to late winter. So why, when it looks so pure and blooms at such a Christian time of year, is it called the black hellebore?
The truth is, this hellebore, is not quite as innocent as it would have you believe. It’s the roots of the plant that give it the title ‘black hellebore’ owing to their inky, dark colour and toxicity. Serious reactions through contact with the rooty sap can cause blisters and burns to the skin.
Attempts have be made to harness the volatile properties of this herb for centuries with several peculiar results. The ancients believed it could be used to treat gout, madness and melancholy and, as the plant is a purgative and ingestion causes serious vomiting, perhaps this upchucking was interpreted as the addiction or depression leaving the body. In some cases, because the poison in the plant is strong, it really would be kill or cure!
In the Middle Ages the pretty, white flowers of helleborus niger were strewn across the floors of cottages and farmhouses to ward off the evil that was forever lurking just outside the door. And if that didn’t work, the old herbalists and healers would have you throw a powder made from the plant onto the air, step into the swirling mist and, as if by magic, you become invisible and run away from the evil witch.
But don’t be afraid to choose this alluring plant for your garden. It’s white flowers, enhanced by a splash of lime green in the centre and a pop of sparkly yellow stamens are the perfect antidote to a long winter. Like all hellebores they prefer dappled shade making them a great choice for around the trunk of a deciduous tree. Leaving a few fallen leaves around the plants provides them with a natural mulch that will help them thrive.
Enjoy the hellebore family, they have so much to offer. Just don’t eat them!