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…