I do love the plant genus Helleborus. Known as the Lenten Rose, it’s certainly living up to its name in 2023, after a few years of not doing very much. (To be fair, when it comes to my garden, I wasn’t doing very much during those few years either, so not entirely the plants’ fault.)
The “rose” business is somewhat misleading, as they’re not roses at all, but are members of the plant family Ranunculaceae, whose best known member is the humble buttercup, and which also includes–among others–anemones, columbines, monkshood, and larkspurs. Although they’re often called evergreen, my hellebores die down in the Fall, and then grow back over the Winter into early Spring, when they start to flower. (I’ve had them flowering at Christmas–they’re sometimes also called the Christmas Rose–but not for several years.)
It’s believed that their name comes from the Greek, from two words meaning (together) “food which injures.” They’re poisonous, emitting a substance similar to toad toxin. I’ve never felt the urge to ingest them myself or to use them as a food additive when I cook for others, and I have to say that a significant population of cats, dogs, sheep, rabbits, and goats who’ve been around them for years don’t seem inclined to test the theory either. My hellebores are all over the place. In addition, I have a small, fenced, garden of really poisonous (but lovely) plants, including foxglove (digitalis) and monkshood (aconite).
Hellebores, though, are one of the species of plants that’s much prized around here as “deer-resistant.” Their large leaves are leathery and a bit rough, and it seems that they’re unpalatable-for that reason alone-to the herds of white-tailed deer who roam the countryside munching on almost everything in sight.
So far, so good with the hellebores. The deer (and the moles, and the voles, and the mice, and all the afore-mentioned other critters) leave them firmly alone.
Legend has it (of course it does) that a good dose of hellebore toxin ended the life of Alexander the Great, and that in 585BC, during the First Sacred War, the Greek army dumped large amounts of macerated hellebore leaves into the water supply for the city of Kirrha, resulting in thousands of deaths and victory for the Greeks.
I don’t really have it in for anybody, so I won’t be brewing up a batch anytime soon, although should I ever be inclined to, I might look to that clip of Lucy and Ethel stomping on the grapes for inspiration.
After all, I have exactly the right sort of tub out in the field:
But when it comes to hellebores, I grow them just because I think they’re pretty. And they show up at a time when there’s not all that much else going on in the garden.
Happy Spring gardening, everyone!