Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hell Flowers

Helleborus foetidus Helleborus niger Helleborus orientalis

Above, from left to right: Detail of stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, the first to bloom of the three hellebore species grown in Bonnefont garden; detail of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, in blossom; detail of the flowers of the Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis.

The name “hellebore” does not derive from the Anglo-Saxon word “hell,” although hellebore might well be described as hellish in some of its actions and associations. Some older sources derive the generic name of the plant from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food), indicating its poisonous nature. However etymologists now conjecture that hellebore is derived from ellos???a young deer???and bora, meaning “the food of fawns”. I’ve asked Alain Touwaide, a classical scholar and an authority on ancient medicinal herbs,??whose work on an important medieval medical text is featured on the Science at the Smithsonian website, to comment on this derivation.

The magico-medicinal character of hellebore, a poisonous member of the Ranunculaceae, a botanical family which includes other deadly species such as aconite, was established in Greek antiquity. The mythological physician Melampus was said to have observed the cathartic effect of hellebore on goats who browsed on the plants. Melampus used the milk of these same goats to cure the daughters of the King of Argos of a divinely inflicted madness, and hellebore was sometimes called melampodium. Hellebore continued to be used in the Middle Ages to purge the body of black bile; melancholia and madness were attributed to an excess of this bodily humor. Dioscorides had recommended hellebore to eliminate excess phlegm and choler as well as bile. It could also be laid on to treat skin diseases, inserted into the ear to cure deafness, and mixed with vinegar, used as a mouthwash to heal toothache. The drastic and dangerous nature of hellebore’s purgative action was well known, and was sometimes exploited for purposes other than healing: according to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the ancient Phocian city of Krissa held out against its besiegers for ten years, until their enemies poisoned the city’s water supply by contaminating the river Pleistus with hellebore roots.

The Roman natural historian Pliny records that black hellebore, identified with H. niger, was used as a fumigant in the ritual purification of houses as well as the magical protection of cattle. He describes the ceremonies attendant on the gathering of black hellebore: a sword was used to trace a circle around the plant; the gatherer then faced the east and implored the gods for their permission before taking up the plant. If an eagle was seen to approach, the gatherer would die within the year. (Historia naturalis, Book XXV.) This mythologem, also found in Dioscorides, raises?? hellebore to the rank of other famous magical roots guarded by birds, such as peony and mandrake.

In the same chapter of the Historia naturalis, Pliny includes an extended discussion of the medicinal uses of both black hellebore and another plant he calls “white hellebore.” Evidently, members of the genus Helleborus and species in the genus Veratrum were used interchangeably in ancient medicine. The so-called false hellebores???Veratrum album, Veratrum nigrum, and the Veratrum viride???are still known respectively as “white hellebore,” “black hellebore,” and “green hellebore”. The true and false hellebores bear no physical resemblance to one another, but they do share the same poisonous and purgative properties. Medieval and Renaissance herbalists continued to group V. album and V. nigrum with the true hellebores. In the fourteenth-century illustrated herbal known as the Tractatus de herbis (British Library MS. Egerton 747), the true hellebore and the false hellebore are shown side by side. (For an image of the true elleboro nero in an Italian herbal ca. 1500, see The Index of Medieval Medicinal Images).

The sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard notes that both true and false hellebores were still used for purgative purposes in his day, although the white hellebore was considered to be more dangerous than any other. (Pliny had described the cathartic action of this herb as terrifying to behold.) Hellebores (especially H. foetidus, stinking hellebore) were also still used in veterinary medicine, as they had been in antiquity and the Middle Ages. The dewlaps of coughing cattle were pierced, and a piece of hellebore root was inserted into the slit to effect a cure.

Gerard mentions wild and garden forms of the black hellebore or Christmas rose, as well as the stinking hellebore, but not the Lenten rose, H. orientalis. Some authors identify the melampodium of antiquity with the latter rather than the Christmas rose, but the more authoritative sources do not. It may be that H. orientalis should not be classed as a medieval species, as the identification has not been granted anything like the scholarly consensus accorded to H. niger and H. foetidus as medicinals. However, there is room for speculation: there were a number of species called hellebore; ancient and medieval herbalists tended to group them together for practical purposes, and the plants described were doubtless sometimes confused. In his work The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art, and Literature, Hellmut Baumann contends that the hellebore of Greek mythology is yet another species, Helleborus cyclophyllus.

I’ll have more for you on growing?? hellebores in the next post, after a short break.

???Deirdre Larkin


Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” ??The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90.?? New York: Abaris, 1984.

Baumann, Hellmut.?? The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art, and Literature. Translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn. Portland, OR:?? Timber Press, 1993.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1987.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

Pliny. ??Natural History, Volume VII, Books XXIV-XXVI. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1956, revised 1980.

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Comments (10)

  1. Alain Touwaide Says:

    The etymology traditionally accepted (”eaten by fawns”; “the food of fawns”) has been revised. In this view, instead of “eaten by fawns”, the name would rather mean “good grazing”.

    The word is a compound. On linguistic grounds, its first element (helle-)has been supposed to come from Arcadian (Arcadia being in fact a pastoral area, a land of grazing) and to mean “good” (corresponding to classical Greek esthlos, which, in Arcadian, was (h)eslos > (h)ellos).

    The fact that a toxic plant is considered good — and named on this basis — may seem strange. However, it is an antonym (that is, using a name that signifies the exact opposite of what the object is about, particularly when this object is considered to be negative [here toxic]).

    This linguistic use was not rare in Antiquity. The clearest case is the concept of “left”: since the left side was considered to be negative (it was linked with the death), “left” was called “the best [side]” in ancient Greek, while the right side was just called “the right side”.

    Returning to helleboros, calling it a “good grazing” was a way to flag the plant as toxic.

    Through this process of antonymy, we discover that ancient Greeks — already in a remote Antiquity, well before Classical Antiquity — were perfectly aware of the toxic effects of hellebore. This is the interest of this type of research, which transforms words into keys to understand how ancient populations (in the specific case here, the Greeks) viewed the world and constructed such vision in a coherent way.

    Hope this helps.

    Alain Touwaide
    Scientific Director
    Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions

  2. Kari L??nning Says:

    So how, or when did the ‘black hellebores’ become the white flowers now associated with H.niger?

    I just came across a new book: Juleroser og P??skeklokker (Christmas Roses and Easter Bells) by Claus Dalby, in Danish. Maybe you haven’t seen it yet ~

  3. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Alain,

    Thank you so much for your etymological explication. I am very familiar with antonymy in the context of ancient religion—e.g., naming the Furies not as the Erinyes, the angry ones, but as the Eumenides, the kindly ones. I have not encountered an antonymous name for an ancient plant before. While your parallel with the Greek designations for right and left is clear, is it possible that hellebore was invoked as a magico-medicinal ally in remote antiquity, and that the flattering name was used to placate an entity perceived as powerful to do harm? Let me know what you think when you have the time.


  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Kari,

    Helleborus niger was so called because of the black roots characteristic of the species, without regard to the color of the flowers, which are white. I was not aware of the Danish publication on hellebores, but am interested to learn that the Danish name for our Lenten rose is Easter bell.

    Thank you for the information,

  5. Flowers Says:

    It always amazes me how that something that is so pretty such as these flowers can be poisonous and deadly. Equally amazing is the fact that even though some are deadly if properly used can be utilized for medicinal purposes.

  6. Phyllis Ginsberg Says:

    When did helleborus orientalis begin to appear in American gardens? I maintain the garden of a c. 1909 Arts and Crafts house belonging to the Long Beach (New York) Historical Society. We recently received and planted helleborus orientalis seedlings. Arts and Crafts Gardens did often contain what were for the period unusual plants. Would helleborus orientalis have been found in a 1909-1925 American garden?

    Any light you can shed on this will be warmly appreciated. Thank you.
    Phyllis Ginsberg

  7. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Phyllis,

    Michael Weishan, author of The New Traditional Garden: A Practical Guide to Creating and Restoring Authentic American Gardens for Homes of All Ages (1999), dates the introduction of Helleborus orientalis to American gardens as 1850. You may find his dated plant list very helpful in your research. You should also consult Restoring American Gardens: An Encyclopedia of Heirloom Ornamental Plants 1640-1940 by Denise Wiles Adams. (2004) Hellebores have been the subject of very extesive breeding programs for some time now. While I do think Lenten roses would be appropriate in your garden, many of the hybrids now available would be different in form and aspect than a garden hellebore of 1909, but you could doubtless find older cultivars if you wanted to keep strictly to the period.

    Enjoy yourself—I’m sure you’ll have a very wide range of beautiful plants to choose from.

  8. homeschool curriculum Says:

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  9. Asons Says:

    I find it fascinating that Hellebore was used to treat deafness many many years ago. The information that you can find really is fascinating!


  10. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hi, Laura—

    Your comment inspired me to do a little further research, and it seems that stavesacre was used to treat infections of the middle ear in antiquity. It seems that this was the one condition of the ear that Hippocrates attempted to cure. I’ve just been treated with a modern antibiotic for otitis media.


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