The Christmas rose, or Helleborus niger, is a fascinating plant from a folklore point of view, and since this is the traditional season for sitting around the fire and telling stories - I thought I would concentrate more on myths and legends than on practical horticulture.
We’ve grown Helleborus niger, or black hellebore, here in the UK for centuries, but it isn’t a native plant. It’s found in the mountainous regions of southern and central Europe, but it has been used by healers since well before the birth of Christ, so it may well have been brought here by the Romans.
It likes partial shade, and neutral to alkali soil, so a woodland garden in the Cotswolds is an ideal habitat.
First, let’s look at its name, Christmas rose. A legend tells how a little girl accompanied the shepherds to the manger at Bethlehem when they went to pay homage to the infant Christ. She felt ashamed that she had no gift, and stood outside the stable weeping. An angel appeared, and as the girl’s tears fell on the ground, the angel changed them into white flowers. The little girl bent down and picked them, and took the little posy inside as a present for the baby.
That’s all very romantic, but it is actually not that usual to see Helleborus niger in flower in the garden on Christmas Day, so why the connection? Well, under the old Julian calendar, Christmas Day was on 6 January, and you may well find Helleborus niger in flower in the garden by this date.
It is said that a specimen was found growing in an English abbey believed to have been established by St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles, and every year it bloomed regularly on 6 January.
When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced to England in 1588, and Christmas Day was moved to 25 December, the plant did not flower on the new date. This was seen as a terrible omen, so much so that England chose not to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and didn’t do so until 1751.
In Greek mythology, the physician Melampus used hellebore to cure the daughters of Proetus, king of Argos, after they had been cursed with madness by the god Dionysus. In return Melampus was given one of the princesses as his bride. Black hellebore is still used by homeopaths to treat depression.
The plant has a reputation for being poisonous, but while it is indeed toxic, it’s not as lethal as history might lead us to believe. Alexander the Great is supposed to have died after being poisoned with hellebore, but it’s likely that the poison was white hellebore - actually Veratrum album, and not a hellebore at all.
As with many flowers that are associated with Christian legends, there is a superstitious side to the hellebore stories. A piece of hellebore root was placed in the ear of an “bewitched” or otherwise unwell cow and it was grown by cottage doors to keep away witches.
Mind you, so many things were grown by the cottage door in the olden days to keep away witches, it was a wonder anyone ever got inside without tripping over.