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  • Writer's pictureHelene Latey

The Gorgeous, Time Travelling, Sullen Christmas Rose

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Yesterday I took the Christmas decorations down with a mixture of sadness and anticipation. “Another year over, a new one just begun...” and all that. The last thing to go was the Christmas wreath, slung with a symbolic clunk onto the compost heap, leaving the front door suddenly bare and dreary.

And that’s how a London January can sometimes feel: bare and dreary. But then I remembered that the wreath was not the final Christmas ‘decoration’ after all. In the garden, and in full flowering glory, was the Christmas Rose – Helleborus niger.

Hellebores are beautiful plants and are up there as one of my all time favourites. They survive happily in shady spots in moisture retentive London clay soil. They provide year round interest through their ever present leaves, bring colour and interest to the garden in the coldest months of the year, and have the most gorgeously romantic flower form.

H. niger fulfils all of the above qualities but is particularly valued for the stunning contrast between its flower and leaf colour: brilliant white petals with golden centres stand proud above dark green leaves. As the common name suggests, the Christmas Rose flowers across the Christmas period, typically from December to January, and begins to decline just as other Helleborus species are ready to pick up the flowering baton.

Speaking of Christmas, one of my presents this year was a curious antiquarian book titled 'The British Herbal and Family Physician For the Use of Private Families' by Nicholas Culpeper, student in Physic and Astrology. Originally published in 1652 (although not my edition!) it contains numerous plates of botanical drawings and some fascinating descriptions relating common British plants to astronomical powers and the curing of human ailments.

Now while I know that many plants do have medicinal qualities, medicine has come a long way since the 1600’s and I’m somewhat sceptical about some (ok, most) of the claims that Culpeper makes in this intriguing book. What is now known, is that Hellebores are poisonous, they should never be ingested and even prolonged handling can cause skin irritations in some people. However, in 1652 H. niger was included in 'The British Herbal' as a cure for numerous health problems – for humans and livestock. Culpeper does warn that it is a difficult plant to work with: “It is an herb of Saturn, and therefore no marvel if it hath some sullen conditions with it...” but this doesn’t stop him recommending its use for cattle: “If a beast be troubled with a cough...bore a hole through his ear and put a piece of the root in it, this will help him in twenty-four hours’ time”.

Much to the relief of cows everywhere, I believe the use of Helleborus niger root inserted into ear holes is no longer practised. The damage caused through misuse of this toxic plant on humans and animals during this period in history doesn’t bear thinking about.

On a more positive note, 'The British Herbal' provides us with an idea of how this plant may have been actually enjoyed, just as I have been doing, for its floral display. Culpeper always includes the location where each particular plant can be found and, unlike the majority of the plants in his book which were to be found in the wild, H.niger was “maintained in gardens”. In fact, this plant has been cultivated since Roman times. ("Perennial Garden Plants, or The Modern Florilegium, Third edition", Graham Stuart Thomas, Sagapress/Timber Press, pg 201)

I enjoy thinking of someone taking a winter walk through their garden, hundreds, or even a thousand years ago, and finding pleasure in the bright white petals and golden centres of the Helleborus niger, just as I am doing in my garden here and now in the new decade of 2020. Did they get the same joy from the way the sun reflects so luminously off the new flowers but becomes trapped within the older petals, suffusing them in a warm, pink dusky glow?

Something Culpeper left out of his “Government and Virtues” for the Christmas Rose: can be used for time travel.

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