Hellebore: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Helleborus niger, the so-called "Christmas rose", in the wild
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Ranunculales
Family: Ranunculaceae
Genus: Helleborus

See text.

19th century illustration of Helleborus niger
Helleborus foetidus has handsome, deeply divided evergreen leaves
The small green flowers of H. foetidus often have a purple edge to each 'petal'
The Corsican hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius (formerly H. lividus subsp. corsicus or H. corsicus)
Helleborus thibetanus
Helleborus odorus (at NYBG)

Commonly known as hellebores, members of the genus Helleborus comprise approximately 20 species (ongoing fieldwork may see this figure change) of herbaceous perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae. Many species are poisonous.


Distribution and description

The genus is native to much of Europe, from western Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, eastward across the Mediterranean region and central Europe into Romania and Ukraine, and along the north coast of Turkey into the Caucasus. The greatest concentration of species occurs in the Balkans. One atypical species (H. thibetanus) comes from western China; another atypical species (H. vesicarius) inhabits a small area on the border between Turkey and Syria.

The flowers have five "petals" (actually sepals) surrounding a ring of small, cup-like nectaries (petals modified to hold nectar). The sepals do not fall as petals would, but remain on the plant, sometimes for many months. Recent research in Spain suggests that the persistent calyx contributes to the development of the seeds (Herrera 2005).

Although the flowers of some species may resemble wild roses (and despite some of their common names, such as "Christmas rose" and "Lenten rose"), hellebores do not belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).

Species and subspecies


Caulescent species

These four species have leaves on their flowering stems (in H. vesicarius the stems die back each year; it also has basal leaves).

Acaulescent (stemless) species

These species have basal leaves. They have no true leaves on their flower stalks (although there are leafy bracts where the flower stalks branch).

  • Helleborus atrorubens
  • Helleborus croaticus
  • Helleborus cyclophyllus
  • Helleborus dumetorum
  • Helleborus abruzzicus
  • Helleborus liguricus
  • Helleborus boconei
  • Helleborus multifidus
    • Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus
    • Helleborus multifidus subsp. istriacus
    • Helleborus multifidus subsp. multifidus
  • Helleborus nigerChristmas rose or black hellebore
    • Helleborus niger subsp. macranthus (syn. H. niger major)
    • Helleborus niger subsp. niger
  • Helleborus odorus
    • Helleborus odorus subsp. laxus
    • Helleborus odorus subsp. odorus
  • Helleborus orientalisLenten rose, Lenten hellebore, oriental hellebore (N.B. most of the Lenten hellebores in gardens are now considered to be H. × hybridus)
    • Helleborus orientalis subsp. abchasicus (syn. H. abchasicus)
    • Helleborus orientalis subsp. guttatus
    • Helleborus orientalis subsp. orientalis (syn. H. caucasicus, H. kochii)
  • Helleborus purpurascens
  • Helleborus thibetanus (syn. H. chinensis)
  • Helleborus torquatus
  • Helleborus viridis - green hellebore or bear's-foot
  • Helleborus occidentalis (formerly H. viridis subsp. occidentalis)

Other species names (now considered invalid) may be encountered in older literature, including H. hyemalis, H. polychromus, H. ranunculinus, H. trifolius.


Hellebores are widely grown in gardens for decorative purposes, as well as for their purported medicinal abilities and uses in witchcraft. They are particularly valued by gardeners for their winter and early spring flowering period; the plants are surprisingly frost-resistant and many are evergreen. Many species of hellebore have green or greenish-purple flowers and are of limited garden value, although Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius), a robust plant with pale green, cup-shaped flowers and attractive leathery foliage, is widely grown. So is stinking hellebore or setterwort (H. foetidus), which has drooping clusters of small, pale green, bell-shaped flowers, often edged with maroon, which contrast delightfully with its dark evergreen foliage. H. foetidus 'Wester Flisk', with red-flushed flowers and flower stalks, is becoming popular, as are more recent selections with golden-yellow foliage.

The so-called Christmas rose (H. niger), a traditional cottage garden favourite, bears its pure white flowers (which often age to pink) in the depths of winter; large-flowered cultivars are available, as are pink-flowered and double-flowered selections.

The most popular hellebores for garden use, however, are undoubtedly H. orientalis and its colourful hybrids (H. × hybridus). They flower in early spring, around the period of Lent, and are often known as Lenten hellebores, oriental hellebores, or Lenten roses. They are excellent for bringing early colour to shady herbaceous borders and areas between deciduous shrubs and under trees.

Hellebore hybrids

Hellebore species and hybrids: Helleborus viridis (top left); H. foetidus (top right) with cross-section; flowers of various specimens of H. × hybridus, including doubles
A flower of H. × hybridus with olive-green nectaries visible behind the stamens
H. × hybridus in a garden

Hybridising (deliberate and accidental) between H. orientalis and several other closely-related species and subspecies has vastly improved the colour-range of the flowers, which now extends from slate grey, near-black, deep purple and plum, through rich red and pinks to yellow, white and green. The outer surface of the sepals is often green-tinged, and as the flower ages it usually becomes greener inside and out; individual flowers often remain on the plant for a month or more. The inner surface of each sepal may be marked with veins, or dotted or blotched with pink, red or purple. "Picotee" flowers, whose pale-coloured sepals have narrow margins of a darker colour, are much sought-after, as are those with dark nectaries which contrast with the outer sepals.

Recent breeding programmes have also created double-flowered and anemone-centred plants. Ironically, doing this is actually reversing the evolutionary process in which hellebores' true petals had been modified into nectaries; it is usually these nectaries which become the extra petals in double, semi-double and anemone-centred flowers. Double hellebores [1] provide a very intesting variation to the standard hellebore. They are generally easy to maintain and share the same planting conditions as the standard hellebore.

Semi-double flowers have one or two extra rows of petals; doubles have more. Their inner petals are generally very like the outer ones in colour and patterning. They are often of a similar length and shape, though they may be slightly shorter and narrower, and some are attractively waved or ruffled. By contrast, anemone-centred flowers have, cupped within the five normal outer petals, a ring of much shorter, more curved extra petals (sometimes trumpet-shaped, intermediate in appearance between petals and nectaries), which may be a different colour from the outer petals. These short, extra petals (sometimes known as "petaloids") drop off after the flower has been pollinated, leaving an apparently single flower, whereas doubles and semi-doubles tend to retain their extra petals after pollination.

Interspecific hybrids

Gardeners and nurserymen have also created hybrids between less closely-related species. The earliest was probably H. × nigercors, a cross between H. niger and H. argutifolius (formerly H. lividus subsp. corsicus or H. corsicus, hence the name) first made in 1931. H. × sternii, a cross between H. argutifolius and H. lividus, first exhibited in 1947, is named after the celebrated British plantsman Sir Frederick Stern. H. × ballardiae (H. niger crossed with H. lividus) and H. × ericsmithii (H. niger crossed with H. × sternii) similarly commemorate the noted British nursery owners Helen Ballard and Eric Smith. In recent years, Ashwood Nurseries (of Kingswinford in the English Midlands), already well-known for its Ashwood Garden Hybrids (H. × hybridus singles, semi-doubles, doubles and anemone-centres), has created interesting hybrids between H. niger and H. thibetanus (called H. 'Pink Ice'), and between H. niger and H. vesicarius (called H. 'Briar Rose'). The gardenworthiness of these hybrids has still to be proven.

Medicinal Uses

Helleborus orientalis subsp. orientalis (syn. H. caucasicus) is used as a herb for weight loss in Russian medicine.[2]

Poisonous constituents

In the early days of medicine, two kinds of hellebore were recognized: black hellebore, which included various species of Helleborus, and white hellebore, now known as Veratrum album ("false hellebore"), which belongs to a different plant family, the Melanthiaceae [3]. Although the former plant is highly toxic, containing veratrine and the teratogens cyclopamine and jervine, it is believed to be the "hellebore" used by Hippocrates as a purgative. California corn lily is similar in appearance to V. album and has sometimes been mistaken for it.

"Black hellebore" was used by the ancients in paralysis, gout and other diseases, more particularly in insanity. "Black hellebore" is also toxic, causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, emesis and catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the pulse), and finally collapse and death from cardiac arrest.[4] Although Helleborus niger (black hellebore or Christmas rose) contains protoanemonin[5], or ranunculin,[6] which has an acrid taste and can cause burning of the eyes, mouth and throat, oral ulceration, gastroenteritis and hematemesis[7], research in the 1970s showed that its roots do not contain the cardiotoxic compounds helleborin, hellebrin, and helleborein responsible for the lethal reputation of "black hellebore". It seems that earlier studies may have used a commercial preparation containing a mixture of material from other species such as H. viridis, green hellebore.[8]

Folklore and historical usage

Several legends surround the hellebore; in witchcraft it is believed to have ties to summoning demons. Helleborus niger is commonly called the Christmas rose, due to an old legend that it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem.

In Greek mythology, Melampus of Pylos used hellebore to save the daughters of the king of Argos from a madness, induced by Dionysus, that caused them to run naked through the city, crying, weeping, and screaming.

During the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC, hellebore was reportedly used by the Greek besiegers to poison the city's water supply. The defenders were subsequently so weakened by diarrhea that they were unable to defend the city from assault.

Some historians believe that Alexander the Great died because of a hellebore overdose, when he took it as medication.

See also

References and external links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

HELLEBORE (Gr. EXMOopos: mod. Gr. also o-Kaca17: Ger. Nieswurz, Christwurz; Fr. hellebore, and in the district of Avranche, herbe enragee), a genus (Helleborus) of plants of the natural order Ranunculaceae, natives of Europe and western Asia. They are coarse perennial herbs with palmately or pedately lobed leaves. The flowers have five persistent petaloid sepals, within the circle of which are placed the minute honey-containing tubular petals of the form of a horn with an irregular opening. The stamens are very numerous, and are spirally arranged; and the carpels are variable in number, sessile or stipitate and slightly united at the base and dehisce by ventral suture.

Helleborus niger, black hellebore, or, as from blooming in midwinter it is termed the Christmas rose (Ger. Schwarze Nieswurz; Fr., rose de Noel or rose .i'hiver), is found in southern and central Europe, and with other species was cultivated in the time of Gerard (see Herbal, p. 977, ed. Johnson, 1633) in English gardens. Its knotty root-stock is blackish-brown externally, and, as with other species, gives origin to numerous straight roots. The leaves spring from the top of the root-stock, and are smooth, distinctly pedate, dark-green above, and lighter below, with 7 to 9 segments and long petioles. The scapes, which end the branches of the rhizome, have a loose entire bract at the base, and terminate in a single flower, with two bracts, from the axis of one of which a second flower may be developed. The flowers have 5 white or pale-rose, eventually greenish sepals, 15 to 18 lines in breadth; 8 to 13 tubular green petals containing honey; and 5 to 10 free carpels. There are several forms, the best being maximus. The Christmas rose is extensively grown in many market gardens to provide white flowers forced in gentle heat about Christmas time for decorations, emblems, &c.

H. orientalis, the Lenten rose, has given rise to several fine hybrids with H. niger, some of the best forms being clear in colour and distinctly spotted. H. foetidus, stinking hellebore, is a native of England, where like H. viridis, it is confined chiefly to limestone districts; it is common in France and the south of Europe. Its leaves have 7to 11-toothed divisions, and the flowers are in panicles, numerous, cup-shaped and drooping, with many bracts, and green sepals tinged with purple, alternating with the five petals.

H. viridis, or green hellebore proper, is probably indigenous in some of the southern and eastern counties of England, and occurs also in central and southern Europe. It has bright yellowish-green flowers, 2 to 4 on a stem, with large leaf-like bracts. O. Brunfels and H. Bock (16th century) regarded the plant as the black hellebore of the Greeks.

H. lividus, holly-leaved hellebore, found in the Balearic Islands, and in Corsica and Sardinia, is remarkable for the handsomeness of its foliage. White hellebore is Veratrum album (see Veratrum), a liliaceous plant.

Hellebores may be grown in any ordinary light garden mould, but thrive best in a soil of about equal parts of turfy loam and Helleborus niger. 1, Vertical section of flower; 2, Nectary, side and front view (nat. size).

well-rotted manure, with half a part each of fibrous peat and coarse sand, and in moist but thoroughly-drained situations, more especially where, as at the margins of shrubberies, the plants can receive partial shade in summer. For propagation cuttings of the rhizome may be taken in August, and placed in pans of light soil, with a bottom heat of 60 to 70 0 Fahr.; hellebores can also be grown from seed, which must be sown as soon as ripe, since it quickly loses its vitality. The seedlings usually blossom in their third year. The exclusion of frost favours the production of flowers; but the plants, if forced, must be gradually inured to a warm atmosphere, and a free supply of air must be afforded, without which they are apt to become much affected by greenfly. For potting, H. niger and its varieties, and H. orientalis, atrorubens and olympicu3 have been found well suited. After lifting, preferably in September, the plants should receive plenty of light, with abundance of water, and once a week liquid manure, not over-strong. The flowers are improved in delicacy of hue, and are brought well up among the leaves, by preventing access of light except to the upper part of the plants. Of the numerous species of hellebore now grown, the deep-purple-flowered H. colchicus is one of the handsomest; by crossing with H. guttatus and other species several valuable garden forms have been produced, having variously coloured spreading or bell-shaped flowers, spotted with crimson, red or purple.

The rhizome of H. niger occurs in commerce in irregular and nodular pieces, from about 1 to 3 in. in length, white and of a horny texture within. Cut transversely it presents internally a circle of 8 to 12 cuneiform ligneous bundles, surrounded by a thick bark. It emits a faint odour when cut or broken, and has a bitter and slightly acrid taste. The drug is sometimes adulterated with the rhizome of baneberry, Actaea spicata, which, however, may be recognized by the distinctly cruciate appearance of the central portion of the attached roots when cut across, and by its decoction giving the chemical reactions for tannin.' The rhizome is darker in colour in proportion to its degree of dryness, age and richness in oil. A specimen dried by Schroff lost in eleven days 65% of water.

H. niger, orientalis, viridis, foetidus, and several other species of hellebore contain the glucosides helleborin, C 36 H 42 0 6, and helleboremn, C H the former yielding glucose and helleboresin, C30H3804, and the latter glucose and a violet-coloured substance helleboretin, Helleborin is most abundant in H. viridis. A third and volatile principle is probably present in H. foetidus. Both helleborin and helleborein act poisonously on animals, but their decompositionproducts helleboresin and helleboretin seem to be devoid of any injurious qualities. Helleborin produces excitement and restlessness, followed by paralysis of the lower extremities or whole body, quickened respiration, swelling and injection of the mucous membranes, dilatation of the pupil, and, as with helleboreIn, salivation, vomiting and diarrhoea. Helleborein exercises on the heart an action similar to that of digitalis, but more powerful, accompanied by at first quickened and then slow and laboured respiration; it irritates the conjunctiva, and acts as a sternutatory, but less violently than veratrine. Pliny states that horses, oxen and swine are killed by eating "black hellebore"; and Christison (On Poisons, p. 876, II th ed., 1845) writes: "I have known severe griping produced by merely tasting the fresh root in January." Poisonous doses of hellebore occasion in man singing in the ears, vertigo, stupor, thirst, with a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and fauces, emesis and catharsis, slowing of the pulse, and finally collapse and death from cardiac paralysis. Inspection after death reveals much inflammation of the stomach and intestines, more especially the rectum. The drug has been observed to exercise a cumulative action. Its extract was an ingredient in Bacher's pills, an empirical remedy once in great repute in France. In British medicine the rhizome was formerly official. H. foetidus was in past times much extolled as an anthelmintic, and is recommended by Bisset (Med. Ess., pp. 169 and 195, 1766) as the best vermifuge for children; J. Cook, however, remarks of it (Oxford Mag., March 1769, p. 99): "Where it killed not the patient, it would certainly kill the worms; but the worst of it is, it will sometimes kill both." This plant, of old termed by farriers ox-heel, setter-wort and setter-grass, as well as H. viridis (Fr. Herbe a se'ton), is employed in veterinary surgery, to which also the use of H. niger is now chiefly confined in Britain.

In the early days of medicine two kinds of hellebore were recognized, the white or Veratrum album (see Veratrum), and the black, including the various species of Helleborus. The former, according to Codronchius (Comm.... de elleb., 1610), Castellus (De helleb. epist., 1622), and others, is the drug usually signified in the writings of Hippocrates. Among the hellebores indigenous to Greece and Asia Minor, H. orientalis, the rhizome of which differs from that of H. niger and of H. viridis in the bark being readily separable from the woody axis, is the species found by Schroff to answer best to the descriptions given by the ancients of black hellebore, the Exxe opos p..O¦as of Dioscorides. The rhizome of this plant, if identical, as would appear, with that obtained by Tournefort at Prusa in Asia Minor (Rel. d'un voy. du Levant, ii. 189, 1718), must be a remedy of no small toxic properties. According to an early tradition, black hellebore administered by the soothsayer and physician Melampus (whence its name Melampodium), was the means of curing the madness of the daughters of Proetus, king of Argos. The drug was used by the ancients in paralysis, gout and other diseases, more particularly in insanity, a fact frequently alluded to by classical writers, e.g. Horace (Sat. ii. 3.80-83, Ep. ad Pis. 300). Various superstitions were in olden times connected with the cutting of black hellebore. The best is said by Pliny (Nat. hist. xxv. 21) to grow on Mt Helicon. Of the three Anticyras that in Phocis was the most famed for its hellebore, which, being there used combined with "sesamoides," was, according to Pliny, taken with more safety than elsewhere.

The British Pharmaceutical Conference has recommended the preparation which it terms the tinctura veratri viridis, as the best form in which to administer this drug. It may be given in doses of 5-15 minims. The tincture is prepared from the dried rhizome and rootlets of green hellebore, containing the alkaloids jervine, veratrine and veratroidine. It is recommended as a cardiac and nervous sedative in cerebral haemorrhage and puerperal eclampsia. Black hellebore is a purgative and uterine stimulant.

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