Helleborus niger, the black hellebore, is native to northeastern Italy, Austria and Croatia. It grows in the shade of deciduous trees and flowers through the winter from December to April while the branches of these trees are bare. A plant that flowers when there is snow on the ground is bound to attract a legend; the black hellebore is often called the “Christmas rose.” Another hellebore, H. orientalis, has been called the “Lenten rose” because it flowers through the earliest spring.
Although it ostensibly has five petals, as true roses do, the hellebores are members of the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family, and their “petals” are actually sepals. The petals have evolved into small cups (within in the calyx) that hold nectar. The sepals of H. niger are white, although they may become tinged with pink as they age, and its flowers are relatively few but persistent.
The story of the Christmas rose recalls that of the “little drummer boy” in the sense that it is the tale of a child too poor to bring a gift to the Christ child in the manger. While the drummer boy brings music to the newborn Jesus, Madelon, the girl in the legend of the rose, is left to wander away through the snow weeping at her destitution.
An angel appears and to comfort the child, brushes the snow where her tears have fallen and “roses” appear. Madelon gathers up the roses and brings them to the new savior.
A 15th century German poem, “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen” suggests that the roses blooming in winter represent the coming of the Messiah.
The Flower, so small, whose sweet fragrance fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man and truer God, helps us out of all sorrows,
Saves [us] from sin and death.
Somewhat ironically the black hellebore is mildly toxic, especially its roots. Symptoms following ingestion include swelling of the tongue, diarrhea, vomiting, vertigo, stupor and cardiac arrest. Not surprisingly it has been used in both witchcraft and medicine (since before there was a difference) to summon demons and cure madness.
The drafting of a plant used in witchcraft and pagan medicine into service as a symbol of Christ is rather par for the course in western civilization, where entire pagan holidays were re-imagined as Christian celebrations. The Roman Saturnalia, a harvest gala held after the winter solstice, became Christmas, and the Celtic Imbolc, the traditional center of the “dark half” of the annual cycle, became “Groundhog Day.”
The hellebores’ winter flowering might have first attracted attention to it; a plant that flowers at such an untoward time of the year must have special properties. All parts of the plant contain a glycoside called bufadienole hellebrin, although it is most concentrated in the rhizomes. That is, sampling any portion of the plant would bring about the above-described symptoms. Since much early medicine was dedicated to driving out poisons, humors and spirits, ingesting something that induces diarrhea and vomiting would seem just the trick.
The wild types of H. niger and H. orientalis were favorites in 19th century English “cottage gardens,” which were Romantic re-imaginings of medieval peasant gardens. As such, they were full of herbs and medicinal plants. As the hellebores are hardy, large and flower at an interesting time of the year, it is small wonder that they not only proved popular for aesthetic reasons, but also were repeatedly hybridized (particularly orientalis).
Both potted and cut H. niger plants are traditional Christmas decorations. The seeds can be planted in pots outdoors in the fall. When they are brought indoors they will sprout immediately. If they are left outside they will sprout and flower later in the winter.