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.
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.