A Potted History: No. 1 - Helleborus niger
Outside our front door at Alton Albany Farm B&B we have planted two containers of evergreen Helleborus niger commonly known as the Christmas Rose or Black Hellebore.
Their names could be considered misleading. Flowers are not black as the name might suggest – that comes from the colour of their roots. Instead, they are a pure white with yellow stamens. They are also a pretty and open bowl shape, which might resemble a wild rose and perhaps suggests why they are nicknamed as such. But they are not related and are in fact a member of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).
What about the Christmas part of their name? Well they have flowered for us here since the beginning of December, through Christmas and will we hope continue for many weeks into the spring providing our guests with a cheerful welcome as they arrive, so perhaps that is why they are called Christmas Roses.
However, there is also a more romantic legend that suggests that a plant sprouted in the snow from a young girl who had no gift to give the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
As for the Helleborus part of the name, it is believed to have come from the Greek ‘ellos/hellos’ (‘fawn’) and ‘bora’ (‘food’), therefore meaning food for a fawn.
In the Middle Ages, the flowers were strewn on the floors of people’s homes to drive out evil, animals were blessed with them and they were used to ward off witches. Allegedly witches used the herb in their spells and sorcerers powdered the plant before tossing it into the air around them to make themselves invisible - - all very Harry Potter like.
Black hellebores grow in the wild in mountainous areas of Switzerland, Germany and Italy but it was in the Phokian city of Antikyra in Ancient Greece that they became renowned and grew in great numbers.
They were used in the fifth century by Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, as a purgative (or laxative) and according to Greek mythology introduced by Melampus who used it to cure the madness of the daughters of Proteus, the King of Argos.
Pretty as hellebores are they are known to be quite poisonous and cause vomiting. According to one source, until the 18th century, the plants were responsible for the deaths of many children at the hands of their own parents. As some varieties of hellebore were used to treat worms in children, the idea being to expel the worms by vomiting. They are now known to be harmful.
If that hasn’t put you off and you are still interested in growing this delightful plant, conveniently they thrive in semi-shade and as long as they are planted in well drained soil. Best to remove any unhealthy looking leaves from time to time and also any excess when flowering to allow the flowers to be seen as they can hide themselves away.
They can we’re told, be propagated by seed – we’re going to try that this year – wish us luck!
Andrea, January 2018