At the darkest time of year, this resilient flower emerges from the snow. It can be easy to miss – white petals camouflaged by their absence of colour, leaves still frozen; its underground root, black as earth. Folklore tells that if you scattered powdered Hellebore root at your feet as you walked, you would become invisible. Is this as an expression of sympathetic magic? The invisible flower with the power to confer invisibility? The plant’s name is a warning. The genus name Helleborus comes from the Greek words bora and helein meaning poisonous food. It was a revered ancient medicine, always handled with great caution, and is still used in homeopathy today. As a poison and a plant medicine it is known for blunting the senses, creating a feeling of not “being there”. Ancient philosophers are said to have used Helleborus to still their minds, placing them in states of deep meditation, a cultural phenomenon known as Helleborism. But it is definitely not a plant to experiment with, due to its toxicity. Also known as the Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger can be both elegant and sullen, slow to establish in the garden, but worth the wait. It is related to buttercups, ranunculus and anemones, in the Ranunculaceae family.
Main image shows a detail from an engraving of Helleborus niger by Crispijn Van de Passe. From Hortus Floridus, published 1614—1616.
Helleborus niger from Mattioli’s Dioscorides illustrated by Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600). Cibo’s wonderful Renaissance botanical illustrations of plants in their natural landscapes are a curious mixture of the fantastical and the accurately observed.