Other Names Christe Herbe, Christmas Rose, Melampode, Black Hellebore, Lenten Rose
Hellebore is native to much of Europe and is commonly found in early spring and shade gardens in North America as well. The flowers have five petal-like sepals that surround a ring of cup-like nectaries (petals modified to hold nectar). These sepals stay on the plant sometimes for many months giving hellebores a long “blooming” time. They often flower in winter and early spring with some evergreen species and are shade and frost hardy, making them quite useful for problem garden areas.
hellebores look like members of the rose family but they are actually members of the buttercup family. These two families are very similar in appearance but they have an important difference. Most members of the rose family are edible, or at least harmless. Most members of the buttercup family are poisonous, or at least mildly toxic.
Some popular varieties include:
Helleborous niger Christmas Rose or Black Hellebore- White flowers appear in late winter or early spring and gradually age to pink. This is the oldest variety and most appropriate for a witches garden.
Helleborous orientalis Lenten Rose, Lenten Hellebore or Oriental Hellebore- Many colorful hybrids and cultivars. This is the most popular garden variety. One of the earliest blooming garden flowers, it tends to bloom during Lent.
Helleborous viridis Green Hellebore or Bear’s Foot
Helleborous argutifolius Corsican Hellebore- pale green, cup-shaped flowers and leathery foliage.
Helleborous foetidus Stinking Hellebore or Setterwort- Drooping clusters of pale green, bell-shaped flowers and evergreen foliage. (Cultivars with yellow foliage and reddish flowers are available)
History and Folklore
Ancient herbals distinguish between Black Hellebore and White Hellebore. White Hellebore has been identified by modern scholars as a plant now known as False Hellebore. Black Hellebore, on the other hand, has been identified as Helleborus officianalis, a native of Greece and Asia Minor.
The genus name, Helleborus comes from the Greek elein, meaning “to injure” and bora, meaning “food” alluding to the plant’s poisonous nature.
Melampodium, an old name for Hellebore, refers to the ancient physician Melampus who used Hellebore to cure the daughters of the king of Argos of the madness of the maenads.
Some have speculated the Alexander the Great died of Hellebore poisoning while being treated for an illness.
In Christian lore, the first Hellebore grew from the spot where a little girl’s tear dropped onto the snow because she had no gift for the Christ child.
According to some sources, Hellebore was an ingredient in the legendary “flying ointment” and it has a long association with witches and witchcraft.
Hellebore will grow in any well-drained garden soil and is extremely shade tolerant. It is great for under plantings around shrubs and troublesome shady spots in the garden. Seedlings can be directly sowed or started indoors and transplanted no later than their second year. Sometimes it takes a few years for flowers to appear. Be patient and your Hellebore will bloom by its third year.
Divide as necessary in Mid to late summer once the rootstock is big enough to be cut.
Hellebore is extremely poisonous. It is best to wear gloves when working with it to avoid absorption through the skin.
Harvesting & Storage
Wear gloves while harvesting. Harvest hellebore just after it blooms, on a moonless night, if you want to get fancy. Hang to dry and store in a sealed container away from moisture and light.
It is used in magic for healing of mental/emotional afflictions and for banishing and exorcisms. It has been used also for increasing intelligence and for protection and invisibility spells. Apparently the plant was dried and powdered and scattered around the person to be made invisible. Ancient magicians also used hellebore to change the nature of other plants, to make their fruits have various unpleasant and unhealthy properties by either grafting the plants together or using hellebore as fertilizer.
This is a baneful herb that should never be ingested and you should wear gloves when handling it.
For magical purposes, roses can be substituted for hellebore.
Hellebore will brighten up the shady corners of your garden and perhaps discourage critters from raiding it. It is one of the earliest flowers to bloom in the spring.
Hellebore was traditionally used as a cure for poisoning of livestock and was considered by the ancient Greeks to be a cure for insanity. It was also used as a powerful purgative. Its use is not advised by anyone today.
Although Hellebore is extremely poisonous, it is also extremely unpleasant to put into one’s mouth. Thus, it’s not as dangerous as it could be. Animals and children who may put it in their mouth will likely spit it right back out. If this happens, they should see a doctor immediately because toxins can still be absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. Always wear gloves when handling hellebore.