THE CHRISTMAS ROSE - Helleborus niger

The Christmas rose - Helleborus niger

The Christmas rose is a plant that comes with its fair share of confusion. While it does flower around the Christmas period, it is not a true rose - although I do accept that the flower shape is representative of a wild rose. Be that is at may, Hellebores are actually from the buttercup family - Ranunculaceae.

There is an old legend surrounding the Helleborus niger which appears to be the responsible for to reinforcing its 'Christmas' association. It is said that it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem.

However, there is a second, more down to earth story that secured it name in English culture. In the 1500's, a single specimen of Helleborus niger that was found growing in an English abbey that was believed to have been established by St. Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. Under the old Julian calendar, this hellebore bloomed near to January 6 which in those days had been the date for Christmas Day. So when the Gregorian calendar was first introduced to England in 1588, and Christmas Day was moved to 25th December, the flower did not bloom at the expected time! It was seen as such a terrible omen that England chose not to adopt the Gregorian calendar at that time and had to wait until it was re-introduced 1751.

What is in a name?

But I digress, the Christmas rose is a hardy, evergreen perennial which can produce an abundance of pure white flowers, although occasionally they are tinged with pink. So to summarise, it has green leaves and white flowers. So where does the species name 'niger' meaning black come from. Furthermore, the Christmas rose has a second, popular common name which is the Black Hellebore! It turns out that the black part of its name actually refers to its roots.

Helleborus niger illustration
Helleborus niger is native to the mountainous areas of mainland Europe, with a range that spreads from Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. It is also found naturalised in Great Britain, believed to have been brought here during the Roman occupation in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius. So why would Romans bring the hellebore to Britain? Well, it turns out that the Hellebore has a lethal reputation and the clue is in its name!

The generic name of this plant is derived from the Greek elein 'to injure' and bora meaning 'food', and indicates to its highly poisonous nature.

In the early days of medicine Black Hellebore was used by the ancients to treat paralysis, gout and particularly insanity, among other diseases. In the wrong hands though, Black Hellebore can be an effective poison. Small doses will cause tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, and a feeling of suffocation, while a larger dose can cause swelling of the tongue and throat, emesis and catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the pulse), and finally collapse and death from cardiac arrest.

It is the ancient Greeks who appeared to make the most of the hellebores deadly properties. During the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC, Greek forces poisoned the city’s water supply by adding huge amounts of crushed hellebore leaves to it. The besieged inhabitants drank the affected water and were quickly overcome with severe diarrhoea. No longer able to defend the city, the Greeks mounted an aggressive attack and with little obstruction secured the city for themselves.

Perhaps the most insidious use of hellebore is in the death of Alexander the Great. Having created many powerful enemies through his conquests of the Mediterranean and North Africa, a deadly concoction containing hellebore was administered by the royal cup-bearer in a betrayal of his position. Twelve days later and Alexander was dead from an overdose of hellebore.

Main Image - Archenzo Moggio
In text image - This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less.

For related articles click onto the following links:
HELLEBORUS 'Penny's Pink'

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