Hellebores in history

Helleborus niger. Watercolour painting by Lady Atholl Oakeley, December 1826

Today has been a day of raised vegetable bed and pond creation -no doubt tomorrow I will pay for a day spent moving soil around! Inevitably it’s a garden post tonight with a look at the way one of this decade’s most popular plants was used in the past.

I have a lot of hellebores in my garden in beautiful shades from white to dark red. They’re lovely to see early in the year and they pretty much look after themselves. However, in earlier times there were two varieties available from this poisonous member of the buttercup family: black (Helleborus officinalis) and white (Veratrum album) – named for the colour of their roots rather than their flowers. It was a cure for melancholy and madness. This view has come down to us from the Greeks. Apparently King Proteus’ daughters were mad and a brew of hellebore purged them of their indisposition. I would not recommend this to anyone given the name of the plant relates to the fact that it’s a toxic narcotic.

During the medieval period your physician might give you some if you were suffering from an excess of black bile leading to melancholy. The side affects of this concoction would be vomiting and diarrhoea. It was probably for this reason that hellebore root was also used to rid patients of worms – the right amount would purge the victim (sorry -patient) whilst the wrong amount would probably kill them.

The idea of using hellebore mixed with vinegar as a mouthwash is somewhat unappetising and for those of you who are a bit hard of hearing it should be noted that there was an idea that shoving a hellebore in your ear (no idea which part) would cure deafness. Paracelsus, writing in the 16th century, stated that it could be good ‘for those of older years’ – which is ever so slightly worrying given the toxicity described in the paragraph above.

Culpepper writing in the seventeenth century stated at stewed hellebore was good for ulcers – external application only.

Nor for that matter would I give much credence to Pliny’s belief that you’d be in big trouble if an eagle saw you digging one up. His preferred anti-eagle device was to draw a circle around the hellebore and to say a quick prayer before digging it up. And my most favourite use for a hellebore requires it to be powdered and spread on the ground – thus rendering the spreadee invisible.

Magic, medicine and alchemy were branches of respectable science and the garden was a walk in pharmacy. If I do find myself in the garden tomorrow I shall keep a weather eye out horticultural eagles.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 


Julie Wakefield, “The Christmas Rose as a Medicinal Plant”, From the Herb Garret (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), December 1st, 2016. [On line] http://oldoperatingtheatre.com…


History in the garden

I can tell summer is nearly here because I’m disappearing historic down cul de sacs without a second thought.  Today’s post is about plants – it’s easy to think that  historical figures trotted around gardens that looked very like our own but it was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that many of the plants we think of as typical of an English country garden were introduced thanks to people like the Tradescants.

However, that aside -and this is my horticultural rhetorical question of the evening- what did the Romans do for us? to quote a certain well known film. The answer is that they gave us ground elder, that’s what they did and quite frankly I rather wish they hadn’t.  This garden nightmare is currently making my life slightly difficult because it does not matter what I do to get rid of it, the ground elder keeps coming back. Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) was introduced by the Romans, to supply their soldiers with fresh vegetables – think of it as a sort of centurion version of spinach.  I shan’t be trying any of my harvest given that having failed with hand weeding I have turned to chemicals. Rather amusingly it is also known as bishop’s weed because it was used by medieval monks as a cure for gout.

Further research revealed that the Romans also gave us the celandine. Rather than being edible like ground elder the celandine offered a cure for warts and corns when its juice was applied.  Even more surprising it turns out that before the Romans arrived on the scene the British countryside lacked foxgloves, walnuts and nettles – and here was me thinking that the Romans only introduced dock leaves to ease the tired tootsies of the marching masses.  The nettles were a form of central heating – i.e. thrash yourself with a nettle and you will soon warm up.  It’s also a cure for rheumatism and sciatica – please don’t try rolling in nettles at home.

Jumping forward to Elizabeth I, lauded as the Empress of Flowers, a garden just wasn’t a garden unless it had an artificial mound where folk could sit and watch other folk hunting deer in the deer park.  It was a time of mazes, fountains and patterned parterres created by borders of box hedge -another Roman offering.  You might even want to smell the roses which were you’ve guessed it, another Roman introduction.  Elizabeth would have been able to walk along gravelled paths looking upon the order and feeling calmed after a hard day yelling at her councillors and boxing their ears as she was prone to doing when she flew into a rage.

The thing about the knot garden though is that it requires a high level of maintenance so not only is it a garden delight, it also has the benefit of  showing off its owners wealth.  The most famous of this kind of  knot garden has been recreated at Kenilworth.  It was originally created in 1575 when Elizabeth visited Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester on one of her progresses.  Dudley turned the visit into an extended marriage proposal  – which is quite a long way from trying to rid one’s garden of ground elder which is what prompted this post.

In addition to all of the above if you were a truly dedicated Tudor garden lover you would require a lawn on which to play bowls; a banqueting house in which to enjoy pudding and other intimate entertainments (yes – you can raise your eyebrows); of yes and lets not forget that all important deer park.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire boasts a rather impressive walled herb garden and although it was established in the twentieth century it’s a reminder that the wealthy didn’t just use their gardens for entertainment and to show off their wealth, they formed a part of the larder as well as offering medication for all kinds of ailments.

So you might be wondering why I started this post with an image of Elizabeth I- it’s the Hardwick Portrait.  The dress was probably a New Year’s gift from bess of Hardwick to Elizabeth.  As well as all kinds of sea monsters – there are also a number of different flowers including irises.  It’s a reminder that flowers had meaning.  The blue and white of the iris had once been associated with the Virgin Mary.  It’s meaning goes back even further though, the goddess Iris was the personification of the rainbow – the link between Heaven and Earth.  So Bess was saying with her use of the lovely flowers which can still be seen at Hardwick Old Hall that the queen was  as chaste and innocent as the Virgin Mary and that the queen was her people’s conduit to Heaven.