Sandy’s Garden ... Hellebore or Christmas Rose

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Plants have fascinated people throughout recorded history, with many actual or imagined characteristics attributed to them.

The plant we usually call the ‘Christmas rose’ or the ‘Lenten rose’ has rather more than its fair share. The ancient Greeks told how a physician by the name of Melampus, who lived some 3 500 years ago, noticed the calming effect that eating the plant’s leaves had on his goats and cured the insane daughters of Proetus, King of Argos with a herbal concoction derived from these leaves. In point of fact Melampus very possibly had heard how Egyptian physicians of his time used hellebore … to give the plant its ‘proper’ name … to treat mania, epilepsy, apoplexy, dropsy, and gout and used his knowledge for his own benefit as well as for the benefit of the unfortunate princesses.

The name hellebore comes from two Greek words … elein meaning ‘to injure’ and bora meaning ‘food’ … and refers specifically to the roots of the plant which are liable to be eaten by rooting animals such as pigs and which are very toxic. One of their chemical constituents can stimulate the kidneys to the point where they cease to function, a characteristic which causes vomiting, giddiness and loss of consciousness and can readily be fatal: but that self-same characteristic can also be exploited to relieve the condition once called ‘dropsy’ but which we would recognise as ‘oedema’, which is the medical term for fluid retention in the body causing affected tissue … usually the feet and ankles … to become swollen. In times past, dropsy was often treated by sticking root fibres into a sweet apple and roasting this under hot embers; then after the fibres had been removed, the apple was eaten by the patient, the small quantities of the root tincture which remained slowing the kidneys’ function down and so inhibiting the build-up of fluid. (Don’t try this at home!)

It is said that the Gauls used to rub the points of their hunting spears with hellebore, believing the game they killed was thus rendered more tender; the leaves were regarded by our ancestors as very useful for expelling worms; the plant was credited with having the power to drive out demons; and it was once known as ‘sneeze-wort’ from the fact that the dried and powdered leaves, if inhaled, induced sneezing … a sort of poor man’s snuff. (Don’t try this at home, either!)

More to the present point, the Royal Horticultural Society says: “Hellebores (sometimes known as the Christmas or Lenten rose) are perennial garden plants with elegant flowers, perfect for brightening up shady areas during late winter and early spring. Some species are grown for their striking evergreen architectural foliage.” The common name ‘Lenten rose’ comes from the plant’s habit of flowering a little before Easter: but with any luck, hellebore may flower in time for Christmas; those in my own garden did so in 2011, although I am doomed to disappointment this year. This may be partly my own fault, for I do my utmost to discourage snails and my hellebores may have taken umbrage at that, for hellebores rely on snails, of all creatures, to spread their seed. But I may pay a last-minute visit to one of my local garden centres to see if I can find a hellebore in a pot for, although there is certainly no truth whatsoever in the fable that hellebores bloomed outside the stable in Bethlehem and were seen by a young girl and picked since she had no other gift to offer the infant … hellebores are not native to the Holy Land … I may be happy to believe the equally implausible tale that a Christmas rose brought into the Christmas home will bring blessing and protection. Whatever, I wish you and yours all that you wish yourselves this Christmas; may it be filled with joy and love, with or without Christmas roses!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society