In Dorset, England, the Christmas, or Lenten, Rose (Helleborus niger) should be planted at the doorstep to “welcome Christ into your home.” Conversely, it brought bad luck upon those who picked it.
One of the few plants that flower in winter, it is a welcome sight in gloomy January.
The Greek shepherd Melampus first noticed its effects on his goats. He cured the king of Argos’ daughters of mental afflictions by giving them the goats’ milk to drink. In the language of flowers, it says madness and delirium.
Digging the plant required a precise procedure. A circle was inscribed around the plant with a sword, then the root gatherers would eat garlic and offer prayers to Apollo and Aesculapius while the roots were lifted.
John Gerard, an English herbalist, recommended it in small doses for “those molested by melancholy” and for “mad and furious men.” This confirmed Melampus’ discovery.
It was used by the Greeks in larger doses to poison the water supply of a besieged city. Its name translates, in fact, to “injure food.”
As Henry Kirke White reminded us in his “Thanatos,” the plant is extremely poisonous:
“Sleepy Death, I welcome thee!
“Sweet are thy calms to misery.
“Poppies I will ask no more,
“Nor the fatal hellebore;
“Death is the best, the only cure,
“His are slumbers ever sure.”
The Gauls used it in hunting, rubbing their arrows with it to make the game more tender.
False or White Hellebore (Helleborus viridis) is called Green Hellebore or Indian Poke in the United States. It facilitates good luck. Native Americans used it in initiation rites. It was also a sorcerer’s weapon. It could be used to call forth demons and curse enemies.
Farmers also believed White Hellebore protected from sorcery and would bless their cattle with it to ensure they weren’t spirited away or used in dark rituals.
It had practical uses, too. Four quarts of water mixed with an ounce of the powdered rhizome would serve to kill all the caterpillars on 150 gooseberry bushes. Mixed with flour, it made an effective insecticidal powder.
Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), also called Setterwort, was used by Elizabethans to cure cattle of disease. They cut a slit in the animal’s dewlap (a fold of loose skin hanging from the neck or throat of an animal), inserted the plant and left it for several days. This was known as “settering the cattell.”
Plant some Lenten Roses this year, for beauty in the depths of winter.
– A reference librarian, Lisa Karen Miller has been gardening and researching plant lore for many years. Have plant lore to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.