Some of the wide range of Hellebore flowers

‘Killing food’ seems to be the literal translation of the ancient Greek form of Helleborus (Helein= ‘killing’ and Bora = ‘for food’), referring, perhaps to the legend that witches used it’s roots to drive out evil spirits! In fact any part of the plant, if ingested, can cause discomfort at the least and it’s sap is a skin irritant. The Greeks were probably referring to the species H. cyclophyllus (from the Greek ‘kyklos’  for ‘circle’ and the Latin ‘pilosus’ for ‘hairy’ , describing the flower).

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 (sounds a bit like Norwich city centre on a Friday night).

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 diarrhoea that they were unable to defend the city from assault. And an overdose of medication containing Hellebore has been suggested as a possible cause of the death of Alexander the Great.

Members of the genus Helleborus comprise approximately 20 species (and many hybrid varieties) of herbaceous or evergreen flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, originally from grassy, woodland, scrub and rocky sites on limestone or chalky soils in central, southern and eastern Europe and western Asia. They are divided into two main groups:

  • Caulescent– having leaves on their flowering stems
  • Acaulescent (stemless)- these species have basal leaves. They have no true leaves on their flower stalks (although there are leafy bracts where the flower stalks branch).

Some of the different species are:

H. argutifolius/ H. lividus (leaves bluish or lead- colour) subspecies corsicus –  the ‘Corsican Hellebore’

H. caucasicus– Caucasian

H. colchidus– of Colchis (an ancient kingdom which went on to form part of modern day Georgia in the Caucasus)

H. foetidus = fetid – the ‘Stinking Hellebore’

H. guttatus = spotted

H. niger = black(the root)- the ‘Christmas Hellebore/Rose’

H. orientalis = eastern – the ‘Lenten/ Oriental Rose’

H. versicarius = from the latin for ‘bladder’, referring to its inflated seed follicles

H. viridis = green (the flowers)

hellebores massed planting-thumb

Hellebores in a woodland setting

Sources and links for further information:





The Poison Garden.com


‘Plant Names simplified’– A.T Johnson and H.A. Smith

Encyclopedia of Garden Plants’– Royal Horticultural Society

Quizzicals:- answers to those in the last post

  • Someone who patrols the observation points in bird sanctuaries = Hydrangea
  • Cockney bigot + flash Italian Car = Alfalfa

(do I hear a groan….)

                                                       Old School Gardener