Christmas Rose

(Helleborus niger) These pure white flowers are symbols of purity, so were used to purify houses, and to drive away evil spirits (Gordon. 1985). This symbolism also accounts for its use as the emblem of St Agnes, the patroness of purity (Hadfield &Hadfield). The time of its blooming emphasises this, for her feast day is 21 January, when the plant should be well in flower.

Christmas Rose was planted near a house because it was believed that no evil spirit would enter a dwelling near which these plants were grown (Rohde. 1936). Cattle were blessed with it, and were treated for cough with pieces of the root, which would be put in a hole made in the cow's ear or dewlap (Drury. 1985), just as Stinking Hellebore would be used. In the Lozère district of France, it was hung in stables and mangers to drive away "les serpents suceurs et les salamandes" (Sebillot). Wonderful enough, but there is an even greater wonder: it is said that scattering the powdered remains of the plant was a way of conferring invisibility! (Emboden. 1974). In some parts of west Wales, the blossoming of the Christmas Rose late in spring was said to indicate "unexpected events" (Trevelyan), as does unseasonal blooming with a lot of other plants. But then, this is one of the plants that blooms on Christmas night, whatever the weather, between 11 and 12, according to the Pennsylvania Germans (Fogel).

The plant had its uses, dubious as they might be, though one in Albertus Magnus is mundane enough: "... when thou wilt that Flies come not nigh thy house, then put Condisum [identified as Helleborus niger] et Opium [Papaver somniferum] in white Lime, and after make thy house white with it, then Flies shall in no wise enter". But it is difficult to know what to make of the statement that the ancient Gauls rubbed their arrow-heads with Hellebore, believing that it made the game more tender (Coiats. 1968). At least the medical uses are realistic enough, though Pliny made a marvel of its gathering, when the person doing so had to be clad in white, and go bare-footed, plucking (not cutting) the flower with the right hand, and then, covering it with his robe secretly, it had to be conveyed to the left hand. Afterwards, the gatherer had to offer a sacrifice of bread and wine (Pettigrew). After that, it seems extremely mundane to record the fact that its use was as a drastic purgative (Fluckiger

& Hanbury). The drug Radix Hellebori Nigri was still being imported from Germany in the 19th century and sold for the use of domestic animals. Much earlier, Topsell had reported that "the small roots of hellebore, which are like to onions, have power in them to purge the belly of dogs". Just like Stinking Hellebore, this species was used for expelling worms in children, and was even recommended by experts like Buchan, but of course this is a highly dangerous practice. Gerard recommended a similar treatment for "mad and furious men, ..., and for all those that are troubled with blacke choler, and molested with melancholy", i.e., for nervous disorders and hysteria. Thornton, much later, more or less repeated this. There is an old legend that may have contributed to this notion that a purge with hellebore cured madness, to the effect that the daughters of Prae-tus, king of Argos, were cured of their madness by the soothsayer and physician Melampus, who had apparently noticed its effect on goats. The Greeks certainly believed it to be a remedy for madness.

The roots are also used as a heart stimulant, and to control menstruation (Usher), and they have also been used to deal with a number of skin diseases, listed by Gerard as the "morphew and blacke spots in the skin, tetters, ring-wormes, leprosie, and scabs". Even its bad smell, so it was believed, was the result of its absorbing sickness from the patient (Skinner).

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