The dark side of the Christmas Rose

Gruesome stories about Helleborus niger abound in history, myth and legend

Helleborus niger - the Christmas roseThe Christmas Rose – Helleborus niger or black hellebore – is, of course, not a rose at all, but a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).  The popular name is thought to have come from a suggestion that it sprouted from the tears of a young Jewish girl who was too poor to give a gift to the new baby Jesus, while the ‘black’ or ‘niger’ description relates to the colour of its roots.

Watercolour by Pieter van Kouwenhoorn of a collection of flowers drawn from nature, including Helleborus nigerHealer or destroyer

Stories about the Christmas Rose abound in history, myth and legend, it is blamed on the one hand for all manner of ills and maladies due to its poisonous attributes, yet hailed on the other as a cure for blemishes, impetigo, melancholia, epilepsy and dropsy among other things. It can, apparently, kill a rabbit in six minutes, but according to Paracelsus in the 16th century, it could be good ‘for those of older years’ (one wonders what he had in mind…).

There are early references to its healing properties way back in Greek mythology: according to Pliny, the legendary soothsayer Melampus used it to heal the madness of the daughters of Proteus, King of Argos. As a result, it has sometimes been known as melampode and Greek politicians are thought to have taken advantage of its poisonous properties to assassinate Alexander the Great.

Star of literature

Garden literature has plenty to say about the black hellebore. C. M. Skinner’s Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants (1911) informs us that as well as being a cathartic medicine ‘it also purged human habitations of such evil spirits as had gained entrance’. Cattle could be blessed with it, and animals killed with arrows rubbed with it would be especially tender to eat. He also recommended it as ‘a cure for the soul-sick’.

Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931) provides us with perhaps the most implausible claim. She refers to an old French romance in which a sorcerer scatters powdered hellebore in the air (or possibly on the ground) and in doing so makes himself invisible. It would be a handy trick but one reviewer of this fascinating tome reminds us to ‘bear in mind it was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900’s. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine’. What a shame! 

Information on hellebores

  • Discover books mentioned here, and more, in the Lindley Library Catalogue as well as details of a wide selection of beautiful hellebore drawings from our picture library or special collections.
  • See our advice on growing hellebores.

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