Type species: Helleborus niger
Related genera: Aconitum, Anemone, Aquilegia, Delphinium, Pulsatilla, Ranunculus
Names: Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose, Christrose, Schneerose, Christwurzel, Nieswurz, Melampodium
Helleborus is a poisonous plant genus in the buttercup family. Discussed are the folklore and medicinal aspects of the Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger). For other hellebore species and garden variants see the photos and descriptions at the end of this article.
“Then he who is about to dig out the plant turns to the East and prays that it may be accounted lawful for him to do this and that the gods may grant him permission.” – Pliny the Elder
Folklore: East is where the sun rises and considered to be the place in heaven where the good spirits dwell. According to Christian tradition the dead are buried facing East, which is the direction from which Jesus is believed to arrive on the day of the resurrection in order to take them with him into the kingdom of heaven. But already before the Christian custom pagans would bury their dead so they would face the rising sun. (For comparison see the gathering of the Mandragore, where the practitioner is to face West.)
“One part hellebore with as much artemisia placed beneath a diamond gives animosity and audacity, guards the members [of the wearer] and makes victorious over what you wish.” – Hermes Trismegistus, 15 Fixed Stars 15 Herbs 15 Stones and 15 Figures
According to Hermes Trismegistus black hellebore is attributed to the fixed star Algol, together with the diamond. Agrippa connects the plant further to Mars and places it also under the rule of Saturn:
“Hellebore is dedicated to Mars and the Head of Algol.” – Agrippa
In ritual hellebore may be burnt for consecrating Saturnian talismans and conjuring spirits of Mars. Christwurzel is also a key herb in Faustian rites of exorcism and coercion, along with garlic and sulfur:
“Carry with you Aaronis and also Hellebore, so that he [the demon] cannot delve into you or possess you.” – Dr. Faust, Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis
The name Christmas Rose comes from its auspicious time of flower or from the Christian legend that it sprouted from a young girl’s tears fallen on the snow, when she was sad that she had no present for the Christ child in Bethlehem. Another legend tells of the goddess Freya, who rescued an abandoned child during a deadly cold winter night by transforming it into a hellebore flower. Hellebore is also a symbol of innocence. It was considered holy and believed to ward off evil spirits, help heal the black death and safe pigs from swine flu if a helleborus flower was placed on the animal’s ears.
The name hellebore is composed of the Greek word ellein = to injure and bora = food, whilst the adjective niger = black, may refer to the color of the plant’s root, which is almost black when dried. The German name Nieswurz refers to its use in sneezing powders. In medieval medicine it was a cure against demonic possession and the plant has a long tradition in healing madness and epilepsy (also called the ‘divine disease’ if a person was possessed by a demon). Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses of the three daughters of king of Argos, who had been driven mad by Dionysos and were screaming and running naked all across town, being cured by the healer Melampus of Pylos with a drink of hellebore solved in milk. Hence the herb was also known by the name Melampodium. Alexander the Great on the other hand is said to have died of an overdose of medication containing hellebore. During the Siege of Kirrha 585 BC, the Greek were said to have poisoned the city’s water supply with hellebore and waited until the enemy was too weak to be able to defend it any longer due to the diarrhea caused by the plant’s poison.
Pliny the Elder identifies a counterpart to the Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger) in the plant he calls White Hellebore or False Helleborin (the plant species referred to is probably Veratrum album).
Medicinal and toxicological: Helleborus niger contains protoanemonin, or ranunculin, which has an acrid taste and can cause burning of the eyes, mouth and throat, oral ulceration, gastroenteritis and hematemesis. Responsible for the lethal reputation of the historical plant known as ‘black hellebore’ are the cardiotoxic compounds helleborin, hellebrin and helleborein. According to new researches these are actually contained in the species Helleborus viridis (green hellebore) but not in the root of Helleborus niger.
Poisoning with above mentioned cardiotoxins is reported to cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, emesis (vomiting) and catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate) and finally collapse and death from cardiac arrest.
Hellebore, like other plants in the buttercup family, can act phototoxic and cause severe skin-irritations and ulcers. Use gauntlets when handling and do not ingest!
Hellebore in the garden: Native to Europe, especially the Balcans. In the garden it is one of those plants that tolerates full shade, even though it may like a place in half shade or sun even better. The plant is also often planted on graves as it takes care of itself and may require no additional nutrients or watering. Black hellebore likes a loamy, slightly alkaline and nutrient-rich soil. However some of the garden varieties may prefer a rather loose, well drained and humus-rich medium. Hellebores are completely hardy (no winter protection needed).
Sowing: Cold germinator. Sow in autumn or winter on moist seeding compost that has been mixed with some loam, press seeds on the soil and cover barely. Leave the sowing pots outdoors and wait for the seeds to germinate in spring. Moisten regularly. Note that they may require two cold periods to germinate. Otherwise place the seeds in the fridge and keep at 0-4°C for 1-2 months. Then sow on sterile soil and keep at room temperature for 2 weeks. If the seeds do not germinate yet move back to the fridge for another 2 weeks for a second cold stratification. Or treat the seeds with ga3 (gibberellic acid).
The young hellebores may not flower before the 3rd year so be patient. The flowers of black hellebore open typically from late December until February. They resemble roses, however the plant is not related to the rose family. What looks like flower petals are actually five large, decorative sepals surrounding bright yellow nectaries (there are also some rare variants with dark nectaries.) The sepals are white in black hellebore and vary in color in other hellebore species and varieties, from yellow and green (H. viridis, H. argutifolius, H. foetidus and H. lividus) to pink or purple (H. orientalis, H. thibetanus) to a dark red or almost complete black (H. x hybridus ‘Black Lady’). These sepals remain and may turn a pale green whilst the seeds ripen in pods. Once these pods open the seeds fall out and spread easily. The different garden varieties are commonly called Lenten Roses and are mostly hybrids. Pictured above are:
- Black Hellebore (H. niger)
- Purple Lenten Rose (H. orientalis / H.s x hybridus)
- Stinking Hellebore or Setterwort (H. foetidus)
Species I hope to grow and work with in the future:
- Green Hellebore or Bears-foot (H. viridis)
- ‘Black Lady’ (H. x hybridus)
Magical attributions: Mars/Saturn, water, behenian fixed star Algol, diamond, curses, banishing, revenge, exorcism, protection, invisibility, intelligence, sacred to dark Lilith, the gorgon Medusa, rebirth
Sources and further reading:
- Faust’s Threefold Coercion of Hell
- Agrippa, The Philosophy of Natural Magic
- Hermes Trismegistus, 15 Fixed Stars
- Harold Roth, Starting seeds for the witch’s garden
- Carolyn’s Shade Garden
Art and photos: Wiebke Rost