Lovely and mysterious Hellebore, here blooms in Central Park at the beginning of March. She is known by many names: Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose, Snow Rose, Black Nisewort.
Though strikingly beautiful set against the gray of winter, do not be fooled. Hellebore is one of the four classic poisons — cousin to nightshade, hemlock and aconite. It was, for example, the charms of Hellebore that are said to have brought Alexander the Great to his knees.
But she is toxin and healer both. Various hellebores have been used for centuries as treatment for insanity, paralysis, gout, cardiac and respiratory issues, as a diuretic and purgative. In Greek mythology, it is said that the great healer Melampus used the wiles of Hellebore to cure the raging daughters of King Proetus.
As elixir, she eases the mind. John Gerarde’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes explains that “a purgation of hellebore is good for mad and furious men, for melancholy, dull and heavie persons, and briefly for all those that are troubled with black choler, and molested with melancholy.”
As magician, she transforms. “Scatter powdered hellebore before you as you move and you shall be invisible,” write Scott Cunningham in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. “Hellebore was also used in exorcism rituals, and was at one time used in inducing astral projections.”
As inspiration, Horace, the great Roman poet, in his treatise The Art of Poetry, gives nod to affecting quality of Hellebore, suggesting she “was supposed to render the mind alert and inventive.”* (Though I wonder…is this not further proof of her duplicity? That she might both cure madness and stimulate creativity?)
Lovely and mysterious Hellebore. Has she cast her spell on you yet this spring?
• • •
Photo ©2012, Jen Payne, Hellebores in Central Park, New York City.
* O.N. Hardison and Leon Golden’ Horace for Students of Literature—The “Ars Poetica” and Its Tradition