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Seasonal Folklore - Hellebore, Witches and Poisoners



black helleborus niger with graphic witches and poisoners hellebore folklore

As far as Seasonal Folklore is concerned, Hellebore has it all. If you wanted to poison someone or make a flying ointment centuries ago Hellebore would most definitely have been on your shopping list. 

 

Doesn’t that seem amazing for such a pretty plant that is often one of the first hopes of spring days in the garden?   It name doesn’t exactly bode well does it?   Despite what you may think the name has nothing to do with hell but is from the Greek “helleborus” which translates as “injure food” - named for its poisoning abilities!  

 

The use of hellebore started off with good intentions - ancient herbalists used it as a cure for madness, worms and intestinal parasites.  This is because hellebore is a strong emetic, and could clear up parasites with a small dose; our dogs/cats eat grass for the same effect.  (Quite how being sick cures madness I’ve no idea?!).  

 

In fact, hellebore is so toxic that overdosing was common and death often followed “treatment”.   Unsurprisingly therefore, hellebore was also commonly used by poisoners - Alexander the Great being a famous victim.   The ancient Greeks knew it well. One famous example is its use in a siege. They shredded it into the besieged city’s water supply leading to an easy victory as it inhabitants were overcome with severe sickness, diarrhoea and eventually died!

 

Even harvesting a hellebore it was thought to be full of danger.  Those ancient herbalists who gathered it for healing tried to protect themselves by kneeling whilst facing east and praying for guidance as they pulled up the roots.  But despite all that if an eagle flew overhead as hellebore was being harvested, then the harvester would be dead within the year.

 

Hellebore is often called the Christmas or Lenten Rose.   Actually, Hellebore is not a rose, it’s a member of the buttercup family. The flowers only look like roses. Black hellebore (Helleborus niger), which is the oldest variety and most steeped in legend, blooms in the winter. One of the few nice stories relating to the hellebore is that it sprung up from the tears of a young girl, who saw the Child Christ, but had no gift to give him. She cried and an angel was so moved that it turned her tears into hellebore flowers.

 

But back to the dark stuff.    Despite the story about the angel, hellebore was often used to call forth demons and curse enemies.  It was used to curse food and ruin fields. If you had a grudge against someone hellebore was sprinkled on wheat or vegetable gardens to make the harvest toxic and bitter tasting.  

 



But the hellebore’s use in spells didn’t stop there.  Witches made a flying ointment using various plants - hellebore and belladonna being the most common - which they mixed with fat and rubbed over themselves before taking to their brooms to fly the night sky.   As both plants have a reputation for effecting heart rhythm and causing hallucinations who knows if medieval witches ever actually flew, or if they only believed they did so because of the plants’ hallucinogenic effects?

 

Hellebore’s other well known magical use was as an invisibility powder. Witches and wizards ground it into a powder and then walked on it to make themselves invisible. What a helpful ability to have if you’re poisoning someone or flying at night and want to avoid being found out and burnt at the stake!


Incidentally, witches did not apply the accepted method of safe harvesting of their hellebores. They would stand facing east on a moonless night as they pulled the plant up, and follow it with spitting on the ground as they cursed and cast spells. Any eagles flying by didn't have a chance! 




hellebore growing in a suffolk garden with snowdrops alongside

In slightly more modern times, in the Victorian language of flowers hellebore has dual meanings. It primarily refers to a scandal but it can also mean hope.  For hellebores flower despite the snow. In the darkness of winter days it  reminds us all that spring is on the way.  Maybe that’s why hellebore is popular in our gardens today. Whilst I hope we won’t be using it as a poison or to fly we can use it as a reminder that there is hope in the darkness and it is, after all, a very beautiful and interesting plant.

 

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