Hellebores are mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature – the plant is said to have been used by the ancient Greeks for poisoning the wells of their enemies. The Latin name of the flower hellebores is actually derived from its hidden black roots and derives from two Greek words, ‘hellin’, to kill and ‘bora’, food.
Extracts from hellebores have been used in homeopathy and traditional medicines in several countries. Originally from Germany, Italy, Austria and native to southern and central Europe hellebores is found primarily in mountainous areas, but also survives in a range of other habitats from light woodland shade to open alpine meadows. Hellebores have a long history in cultivation in Europe – having been cultivated in western Europe and can be found naturalized around ruins of old monasteries and other structures. For centuries they have been used for various medical purposes, and all contain alkaloids and other chemicals that could lead to poisoning if ingested in large quantities.
The most popular hellebore is Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose. It is one of Britain’s oldest cultivated plants and thought to have been introduced by the Romans.
The cultivation and hybridising of hellebores started in the 19th century with German botanists leading the field. New forms soon found their way into the plant lists of British nurseries beginning a fascination for this species that has continued till today. Hybridising really began in earnest after the Second World War.
Helleborus is a small genus in the family Ranunculaceae, the genus covering a group of perennial plants from Europe and Asia. Members of Ranunculous family are mostly herbaceous with divided or lobed leaves. Leaves are generally basal or alternate on the stem. The color on the flowers mostly comes from the calyx.
Hellebores generally have five sepals (in Clematis, sepals usually number four) often produce large, leaf-like bracts and ‘cauline’ leaves along the flower stalks. Most have developed rhizomes and very short stems. Some have longer aerial stems and less developed rhizomes.
I didn’t think the hellebore was such a great plant and wondered why they were so expensive. You could barely see the flowers unless you went on the ground and peeked up at the flower, and usually the flowers were a pale wishy washy colour. But I suppose the plant is in Europe what the ume (plum blossom) is to us – it heralds the start of the new year, coming into bloom at this time of the year. We had ours from seedlings and in its second year, they still haven’t bloomed yet. Many of the gardening articles I have read say that the Christmas Rose or Lenten Rose hellebores are the stars of the winter garden; they are said to be hardy and beautiful – but for us in Japan there are so many other much more spectacular plants in bloom around now.