Hellebore (Helleborus spp.) is native to much of Europe and is commonly found in early spring and shade gardens in North America as well. The flowers have five petal-like sepals that surround a ring of cup-like nectaries (petals modified to hold nectar). These sepals stay on the plant sometimes for many months giving hellebores a long “blooming” time. They often flower in winter and early spring with some evergreen species and are shade and frost hardy, making them quite useful for problem garden areas.
Other Names Christe Herbe, Christmas Rose, Melampode, Black Hellebore, Lenten Rose
Superficially, many hellebores look like members of the rose family (Rosaceae) but they are actually members of the buttercup family (Ranunculus).
These two families are very similar in appearance but they have an important difference. Most members of the rose family are edible, or at least harmless. Most buttercup family members are poisonous, or at least mildly toxic.
Some popular varieties include:
Christmas Rose or Black Hellebore- White flowers appear in late winter or early spring and gradually age to pink.
Lenten Rose, Lenten Hellebore or Oriental Hellebore- Many colorful hybrids and cultivars. This is the most popular garden variety. This is likely the Hellebore that is referenced as black hellebore in ancient Greek myth.
Green Hellebore or Bear’s Foot
Corsican Hellebore- pale green, cup-shaped flowers, and leathery foliage.
Stinking Hellebore or Setterwort- Drooping clusters of pale green, bell-shaped flowers and evergreen foliage. (Cultivars with yellow foliage and reddish flowers are available)
History and Folklore
Ancient herbals distinguish between Black Hellebore and White Hellebore. White Hellebore is probably Veratrum album, also known as False Hellebore and it will need its own article. Black Hellebore when referenced by ancient Greek mythology is probably Helleborus orientalis, aka Lenten Rose, a native of Greece and Asia Minor. More recent herbals may be referring to either H. orientalis or H. niger and some research may be required to differentiate which is meant.
The genus name, Helleborus may be derived from the álkē, or “fawn” and boros, “food” as in “Food for fawns” ((https://www.etymonline.com/word/hellebore)) or heleîn “to injure” as in “food injury”.
Scholars seem to have a hard time agreeing on this one. Another theory (Graves, 1948) suggests that the name means “food of Helle” referencing the Goddess Helle, the Goddess of the Hellespont, the body of water that bridges the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea((https://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Helle.html)).
Melampodium, an old name for Hellebore, refers to the ancient physician Melampus who used Hellebore to cure the daughters of the king of Argos of the madness of the maenads. ((https://www.theoi.com/Flora1.html))The word means “black-footed”.
Melampodium is a modern-day name of a genus of sunflower-like plants native to the Southern portions of the New World, aka, the butter daisy, not closely related to hellebores at all ((https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/melampodium-or-butter-daisy/))
Some historians have speculated that Alexander the Great died of hellebore poisoning, either intentionally or accidentally while being treated for an illness. Recent scholarship suggests that White Hellebore (Veratrum album) could have been the culprit. ((https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/15563650.2013.870341?journalCode=ictx20))
In Christian lore, the first Hellebore grew from the spot where a little girl’s tear dropped onto the snow because she had no gift for the Christ child. Another version says it grew from the palm of her hand.
According to some modern sources, Hellebore was an ingredient in the legendary “flying ointment” and it has a long association with witches and witchcraft. Just about every toxic old-world plant has, but I have not been able to confirm this with ancient sources.
Hellebore grows well in USDA zones 5a through 8a in any well-drained garden soil and is extremely shade tolerant. It is great for under plantings around shrubs and troublesome shady spots in the garden. Seedlings can be directly sowed or started indoors and transplanted no later than their second year. Sometimes it takes a few years for flowers to appear. Be patient and your Hellebore will bloom by its third year.
Divide your plants as necessary in mid to late summer once the rootstock is big enough to be cut.
Hellebore is extremely poisonous. It is best to wear gloves when working with it to avoid absorbing toxins through the skin.
Harvest hellebore flowers just after they bloom; on a moonless night, if you want to get fancy. Hang to dry or press in a book and store in a sealed container away from moisture and light.
Roots should be harvested after the plant has finished flowering, dried with low heat, crushed into grains, and stored in a sealed jar away from moisture and light.
To collect the seeds, wait for the pods to mature and hang them upside down in a paper bag to dry and shake the seeds loose. Store them in a cool, dry place.
The Symbolism of Hellebore
The flowering of hellebore out of the snow represents hope and rising from past troubles.
Hellebore seems to have been used as a literary device to indicate insanity, or, more specifically, its cure. For example, In Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Walter Scott , ((https://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/scott/lodw07.htm)) He writes of those brought to trial for sorcery “A number of unfortunate wretches were brought for judgment, fitter, according to the civilian’s opinion, for a course of hellebore than for the stake.”
Seeming to indicate that a number of these folks should have been treated for mental illness, rather than prosecuted for sorcery. While Lucian (170s? BCE) writes in his Anarchis, A Discussion of Physical Training “I think a state that submits to such ridiculous treatment at its own hands wants a dose of hellebore.”
Making clear his opinions of the traditions in that locality (regarding corporal punishment)((https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl3/wl312.htm)).
Hellebore is associated with Mars and Saturn ((per Agrippa https://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/pnm/pnm34.htm and https://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/pnm/pnm36.htm)) and corresponds to the element of water.
Bath Agrippa and Francis Barrett have near identical Mars incense recipes including hellebore root in their grimoires. ((Francis Barrett https://www.sacred-texts.com/grim/magus/ma132.htm Agrippa https://www.sacred-texts.com/eso/pnm/pnm53.htm))
Hellebore may be utilized in modern magick for healing mental/emotional afflictions and for banishing and exorcisms. It has been used also for clarity of thought and for protection and invisibility spells.
Dried hellebore root may be ground into powder or fine grains and sprinkled around the person or item to be made invisible as part of a larger invisibility spell.
For increasing intelligence, logic, or clearness of thought, gaze upon a hellebore flower, or place it on your forehead while meditating on the issue at hand. Do the same while visualizing a life free from vice or addiction in order to banish those things from your life, then toss the flower into moving water and watch it float away.
Consider using moon water infused with hellebore in sympathetic magic spells that involve washing away illogical ideals, vices, addictions or other mental blocks that interfere with clear thinking and encourage the subject to behave in their own best interest. Do not consume this water or put it on anyone’s skin.
I have found some mention of ancient magicians also used hellebore to change the nature of other plants, to make their fruits have various unpleasant and unhealthy properties by either grafting the plants together or using hellebore as fertilizer.
Hellebore is a baneful herb that should never be ingested and you should wear gloves when handling it.
For magical purposes, roses can be substituted.
Hellebore will brighten up the shady corners of your garden and bring a smile very early in the spring/late winter when it is among the first blooms to appear. It is not attractive to deer, woodchucks, or any of the usual garden raiders who destroy flower beds.
Hellebore is mentioned in ancient Greek mythology as a treatment for insanity, paralysis, gout and impotence. It is considered unsafe for use today((https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-99/black-hellebore)). It does appear in some homeopathic remedies for mental illness, headaches, and irregular menstruation.
It has also been used for headaches ((The Magus, by Francis Barrett 1801 “Black hellebore easeth the head-ache, being applied to the head, or the powder snuffed lip the nose in a moderate quantity.” https://www.sacred-texts.com/grim/magus/ma107.htm))
Although Hellebore is extremely poisonous, it is also extremely unpleasant to put into one’s mouth. Thus, it’s not as dangerous as it could be. Animals and children who may put it in their mouths will likely spit it right back out. If this happens, they should see a doctor immediately because toxins can still be absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. Always wear gloves when handling hellebore.
Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow Lives of Plants by Fez Inkwright at amazon.com
Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Coleston Burrell, Judith Knott Tyler, and Richard Tyler at Amazon.com
Hellebore at Alchemy-works.com (Seeds available for purchase)
The Court of Helleborus: A Collection of Herbal Lore from Poisoner’s Apothecary at Patheos.com
2 thoughts on “Hellebore: Folklore, Propagation, Healing & Magickal Uses”
Hellebores grow in our garden; I love them and would like to know yet more. Can you please share your sources? I’m most interested in seeing original source material for the claim, “According to some sources, Hellebore was an ingredient in the legendary “flying ointment” and it has a long association with witches and witchcraft.” Thank you.
Hi thanks for your interest. I have tried to find this information and I can’t! I see lots of modern recipes containing Hellebore but none historical, so I can’t confirm it. It seems it is most associated with sanity. Please enjoy the complete rewrite, with references, that I have given this article and the upcoming podcast in progress.