Posts Tagged ‘Helleborus foetidus’

Monday, April 12, 2010

Long live the hellebores . . .

Helleborus niger Helleborus seed capsules Helleborus  

Above, from right to left: The showy stamens of the hellebore will shrivel and drop off, but the flowers will be attractive for many weeks more; the long-lasting sepals and the seed capsules they surround provide a second phase of beauty and interest; the sepals and seed capsules darken in color as they mature. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.

Hellebores are among the earliest flowers to come in our gardens, but they are slow to go, unlike the snowdrops that bloom only for a short while in late winter and early spring. The hellebore flowers that appear in February-March lose their showy stamens in April, but the persistent sepals and the ripening seed capsules are beautiful and will last for many weeks longer.

There are some twenty species of Helleborus, native to Europe, Turkey, and the Caucasus, and many crosses have now been made between them. Since these cultivated forms are beautiful, various, hardy, undemanding, vigorous, and drought-tolerant, they have become very popular garden plants. Hellebores are now being bred to bear more upright flowers, so they can be more easily admired, and a wide variety of colored and freckled forms, including blue and black-flowered cultivars, are available to collectors. For information on hybrid forms, see “Hybridizing Helleborus niger (PDF)” on the Royal Horticultural Society website.

These winter-blooming plants are dormant in summer, and cope well with dry shade; they require little maintenance beyond the removal of old foliage in fall or late winter. They self-seed freely and are easily propagated by division. For comprehensive information on knowing and growing them well, see Hellebores.

For a history of  hellebore species used in ancient and medieval medicine, see “Hell Flowers,” March 24, 2010.

—Deirdre Larkin

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. Read more »