Saturday, January 24, 2015

Black Hellebores and A Little Girl's Tears

  Christmas Rose or Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger)
" 'Barberry leaves, three handfuls in a decoction, steeped overnight, poured over half a handful of black hellebore.' I laid the list of... ingredients down on the inlaid table as though it were slightly slimy to the touch. 'I got it from Madame Rouleau. She's the best of the angel-makers, but even she says it's dangerous. Louise, are you sure you want to do this?' 
Her round pink face was blotched, and the plump lower lip had a tendency to quiver. 
'What choice do I have?' She picked up the recipe for the abortifacient and gazed at it in repulsed fascination." 
 - from DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, Chapter 13, by Diana Gabaldon
I love hellebores. I have been growing them for years. They are highly prized in the gardening community for their exotic flowers and the fact that many of them bloom in the dead of winter.

So finding out that black hellebore, Helleborus niger, was used to end unwanted pregnancies, and given their level of toxicity, probably also the lives of the mothers, was like discovering that a longtime, dear friend has a troubled, secret past.

The Helleborus niger that I know isn't usually called "black" hellebore, although niger means black in Latin. It's called Christmas Rose because it blooms around Christmastime. It is also associated with Christmas because of a sweet bit of folklore. The story goes that a little girl was traveling to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus. She started to cry because she had no gift to bring him. Where her tears fell to the ground, these flowers sprang up, blooming in the snow.

The Helleborus niger that I know doesn't have black flowers. Its flowers are white or pink. There are hellebores with near black flowers, but they are hybrids. The word niger in the botanical name refers to the dark color of the rootstock, not the flower color or some sinister character trait.

The Helleborus niger that I know isn't slimy. It has leathery leaves and flower petals (which are actually sepals, botanically speaking) that feel to the touch like that of a rose.

(Apparently, I'm not the only one who found the news about hellebores disturbing. Our friends at Outlander PodcastGinger and Summer, discuss their reactions in Episode 74: Hellebore.)

I hope you won't let toxic stories from the past cause you to turn away from hellebores. In the present day garden, they offer great beauty in exchange for very little work on the part of the gardener. More than that - watching their flowers emerge from the cold, damp earth in winter is nothing short of inspirational.

The Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis), so-called
because it blooms during Lent, typically has pink flowers,
but there are also white, chartreuse, and deep purple varieties. 

Botanical Information

Family: Ranunculaceae
Genus: Helleborus
Species: Helleborus niger
Common Names: Black hellebore, Christmas rose

There are many species of Hellebores. Helleborus foetidus is called "stinking hellebore" because of the odor given off when the leaves are crushed. Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten Rose, blooms right around the time Lent begins. Helleborus argutifolius, the Corsican hellebore, blooms in early March. There are new introductions of hybrids arriving in nurseries every year, sporting unique flower colors and leaf characteristics. They are popular with collectors.

Hellebores are easy to care for. They are shade plants and will bloom even in deep shade. The foliage replaces itself every year after blooming. Simply cut away the old, ratty foliage when the new growth appears. Give your plants a generous top dressing of compost as the new foliage emerges and keep the soil evenly moist.

I've seen aphids on my plants after the blooms fade. Hellebores like moist conditions and when the soil begins to dry out in late spring, I think they get a bit stressed. That's when they become susceptible to aphid infestations. But no worries, the aphids don't do any real damage and can be easily sprayed off with the hose.

Helleborus foetidus - it's too bad such a lovely plant is
stuck with such an ugly name - Stinking Hellebore.

Corsican Hellebores (Helleborus argutifolius)
grow wild in Corsica and Sardinia. They can

take more sun and drier conditions than other species.
Want to know more about hellebores? The Gardener's Guide to Hellebores, by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman,  is a wonderful reference if you want to learn more about these beautiful plants.

Ancient Medicinal Uses


According to Wikipedia, Helleborus niger was used to treat gout, paralysis and insanity. Mrs. M. Grieve's Modern Herbal lists conditions such as dropsy (edema), amenorrhoea, various nervous disorders and hysteria as responding to treatment with black hellebore.

However, all sources warn that the plant is highly toxic. Mrs. Grieve describes it as being "violently narcotic," in addition to having "drastic purgative, emmenagogue and anthelmintic properties," meaning laxative, menstrual stimulant, and anti-parasitic, in that order. Wikipedia lists side effects that include: ringing in the ears, dizziness, stupor, thirst, swelling of tongue and throat, and death from cardiac arrest.

Helleborin, hellebrin, and helleborein are cardiotoxic compounds found in hellebore roots. These compounds, which cause cardiac arrest, are probably most responsible for  the lethal reputation of the black hellebore. However, studies done in the 1970s showed that Helleborus niger roots did not contain those compounds. It is likely that other species of Hellebore, such as Helleborus viridis, green hellebore,  which do contain the compounds, were confused with Helleborus niger and the black hellebore was blamed for the cardiac complications.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to avoid ingesting any part of this plant for any reason. Be safe - and just enjoy the flowers.

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