The Christmas rose has what is probably one of the most obvious common names ever given to a plant.
It often, though by no means always, blooms at Christmas. However, it is not a rose, despite its name, for it is a member of the extended family of plants called Ranunculaceae and not a member of the extended family to which all true roses belong, the Rosaceea. Still, its flowers resemble those of a rose, justifying that part of its name at least.
There is a legend that a Christmas rose was in flower outside the stable in Bethlehem on the very night that the infant Jesus was born, but this seems to be no more than a flight of fancy, for the Christmas rose … Helleborus niger to the true botanist …is not native to the Holy Land; and there is no reason to believe that any of them had been taken there as exotics two thousand years ago. It actually came originally from northern Italy and the eastern Alps and its botanical name Helleborus comes from two Greek words … ‘hellein’ meaning to kill and ‘bora’ meaning food … because it was formerly used medicinally to kill worms in children. The appellation niger means, as might be guessed, ‘black’, not because it has black flowers but because it is the Helleborus with black roots.
In point of fact the flowers are white when they first appear, sometimes turning a delicate shade of pink as they age. And the use of the words ‘as they age’ in relation to the flowers of the Christmas rose is not misplaced, for the flowers often remain as healthy blooms for months, seemingly impervious to frosts, to snow and to the chill winter winds which are the death of most other flowers that are sufficiently misguided as to show their heads in the depth of winter.
The medieval English herbalist John Gerard, who knew a thing or two about plants and their medicinal properties, wrote of the Christmas rose that is was good for “mad and furious men… and for all those that are troubled with black choler and molested with melancholy.” (I do like that phrase ‘molested with melancholy’; it seems to me to sum up the matter of depression rather well.) And the belief that the plant was useful in the treatment of ‘furious men’ … we’d call them ‘sufferers from mental illness’ … seems to stem from Greek mythology. The daughters of King Proetus of Argos abused their privileged position as royal princesses by being disrespectful to a statue, rather in the manner of the contemporary fondness for placing traffic cones on the heads of statues of illustrious people. In what seems rather like an over-reaction they were punished by being deprived of their senses … it’s politically incorrect to say they were made mad … and took to touring the country stark naked. An embarrassed goatherd named Melampus persuaded them to drink some of his goats’ milk, by which their madness left them and they were restored to sanity … and modesty, I daresay. The medicinal properties of the milk were ascribed to the fact that the goats had been feeding on hellebore, although the legend does not specify which member of the Helleborus family it was, whether Helleborus niger or one of its close kin.
Setting this remarkable tale aside, the Christmas rose is still a remarkable plant. It pushes its flowering shoots up through frost-hardened ground; it blooms amidst the snow; its seeds are distributed by slugs and snails; and even after the frostiest of mornings when the petals and leaves are literally frozen stiff, as soon as the frost lifts they return to being velvety soft, entirely unaffected by their ordeal. It is, of course, the only flower to be found thriving in a Scottish garden in the depths of a severe winter; and that’s remarkable enough for me!