Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Rose, Hellebores

Hellebores, or Helleborus niger, is known as the Christmas Rose since it blooms in December. In some areas, depending on your weather, it’ll start blooming in fall. The leaves are usually evergreen, which also adds to its appeal. Hellebores are very deer and rodent proof.

Hellebores are a stemless herbaceous perennial, native to Europe. It grows up to 18” tall. The flowers are usually white, although some will have a dusty rose color.

How to grow Hellebores Hellebores like moist, shady soil. So be sure to give it lots of water regularly after planting, and into the fall, when the ground may be drier than other times of the year. They like neutral or slightly alkaline soil.

Give them some shelter – plant them near a building in order to protect them from wind and cold.

You can view them best if you are viewing them straight on or from below. So, planting them at the top of a retaining wall, for example, will help you to appreciate their flowers more.

They are hardy from zones 3 to 8 in the U.S.

They can be difficult to divide as the roots snap off very easily, so a lot of care must be taken when dividing.

All parts of Hellebores are poisonous, the roots being especially poisonous. This would account for its deer-proof properties. Certainly, don’t eat any parts of the plant, but also be very careful handling this plant – it can cause skin irritations. Wear gloves!

Borage and Hellebore fill two scenes,
Sovereign plants to purge the veins
Of melancholy and cheer the heart
Of those black fumes which make it smart

From Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy

The Christmas Rose flowers from December to April, it's beautiful white petals and deep green foliage standing out amidst the dull, leafless terrain of winter.

It really isn't a rose at all, but the Black Hellebore, a member of the hellebore family and one of the most poisonous plants in existence. The name "Hellebore" comes from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food), which roughly translated means injurious food. It is called Black Hellebore because of its dark colored rootstock.

It has been used medicinally in Greece around 1500 B.C., where it was called Melampode in reference to Melampus the physician who first employed it as a medicinal herb. Melampus used it as a purgative in treating mania. Herbalists used it thoughout the centuries for curing madness, as a tranqulizer, and in a concoction washed onto walls to rid households of flies.

In ancient times, the Black Hellbore was considered to have a powerful ability to drive away evil spirits. People would bless their livestock with the Black Hellebore, to protect them from evil spells. Sorcerers were said to use hellebore to make themselves invisible by casting powered hellebore in the air.

According to Parkinson, 'a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre.'

Many historians speculate that the Black Hellebore probably became associated with Christmas because it blooms at Christmas time, and Christ as the rose is a common metaphor found in the Holy Bible. As well, Martin Luther King, the founder of the Protestant Christian movement, adopted it as his coat of arms and insignia.

Finally, here is a beautiful legend, adapted and written into story form in the 1500s by Lizzie Deas told of the Christmas Rose:

When the Magi laid their rich offerings of myrrh, frankincense, and gold, by the bed of the sleeping Christ Child, legend says that a shepherd maiden stood outside the door quietly weeping.

She, too, had sought the Christ Child. She, too, desired to bring him gifts. But she had nothing to offer, for she was very poor indeed. In vain she had searched the countryside over for one little flower to bring Him, but she could find neither bloom nor leaf, for the winter had been cold.

And as she stood there weeping, an angel passing saw her sorrow, and stooping he brushed aside the snow at her feet. And there sprang up on the spot a cluster of beautiful winter roses, -- waxen white with pink tipped petals.

"Nor myrrh, nor frankincense, nor gold," said the angel, "is offering more meet for the Christ Child than these pure Christmas Roses."

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