Helleborus niger

The Christmas rose Helleborus niger is a plant of the old dispensation: it favours the Julian calendar and is usually flowering more splendidly in the first week of January than in December. Although it is semi-evergreen, I find it is good to cut the year-old leaves down to ground level once the flowers begin to show. Then the flowering stems can grow and be seen without the rather tatty foliage spoiling the effect. By the time the flowering has finished, the fresh new leaves have come through and they, in turn, look splendid once the seed heads have been removed. Hellebores grow to around 40cm/15″ tall and provide interest and colour all year round. The leathery, palmate leaf is handsome, and the predominantly white flower can reach 8cm/4″ across. It flowers for weeks, through the darkest months of the year.

I found it highly valuable in Herefordshire where I grew it at the front of shady shrub borders. It liked the moist alkaline soil and its annual dressing of composted mulch. Within a couple of years, the plants had doubled in size. After four years, the clumps were ready to be lifted and divided. I prefer to do this in spring rather than autumn, as the plant has longer to recover from the trauma before the physiologically expensive flowering begins. The daughter plants can be used to populate the garden as hellebores are more beautiful in swathes. Or, better still, to give to friends. It seems right to share with others the gift which the world has given freely. Memories of friendship are planted and the roots grow deeper, year on year. It is one of the consolations of ageing.

The simple, open flower resembles a wild rose, but it is in fact a member of the buttercup family, RANUNCULACEAE, and all parts of it are toxic. It was used by the Greeks in 585BC  during the First Sacred War to poison the water supply of the city of Kirrha and thus weaken the defenders. It is a potent plant: hellebore, along with nightshade, hemlock, and aconite comprise the four classic botanical poisons. Despite, or because, of this it has a long history of medical use, often as an abortifacient or purgative of excessive humours. The legendary Mylampus of Pylos used it to cure the daughters of King Proteus of Argos from a madness induced by Dionysius – a story which raises interesting questions about the causes and nature of insanity. More recently, the magnificent polymath Theophrastus noted its sedative effects, whilst Dioscorides made extensive use of it in his first century De Materia medica. I think it is a finer plant in the garden than in the pharmacy.

Helleborus niger

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