Today we know Black Hellebore (botanical name Helliborus Officinalis) as the Christmas Rose, but it also had a much older name, Christe Herb. The reason for both of these alternative names is that, in a mild winter, this plant will flower at Christmas. In past centuries it was said that it bloomed in joy at Christ’s birth. The same significance was read into the mid-winter flowering of the Glastonbury Thorn (replaced on the same spot through the centuries) growing on Weary-all Hill above Glastonbury town.
A medieval legend provided an explanation for the phenomenon. It tells the story of a shepherdess, Madelon, who cried because she had no gift for the baby Jesus. An angel took pity on her, and when her tears reached the ground, the Christmas Rose miraculously sprouted from the snow. Overjoyed, Madelon presented her gift, the Christmas Rose, at the manger to the baby Jesus.
To continue exploring this plant’s name, it may seem odd that Black Hellebore bears white flowers. But it is not due to the flower’s colours that this plant gets its name from, but from the colour of its root, which is black. What may seem equally odd is that the root has been used for medicinal purposes, even though it is highly poisonous.
The botanical name Helliborus derives from a combination of the Greek words ‘to injure’ and ‘food’. It is a violent purge. However, this was a quality that was held in esteem in medicine from the medieval period to the Victorian era. For example something which induced vomiting and diarrhea was believed to be of great benefit in cases of edema, formerly known as dropsy. In the past it was certainly believed that this condition could be remedied by drinking water in which Black Hellebore root had been boiled (a form of herbal medicine known as a decoction). Care had to be taken to ensure that the dose was small enough that it wouldn’t be fatal.
This purgative/poisonous quality also lead to it being used to kill intestinal worms. It was very effective in this respect. However the naturalist Gilbert White noted that care had to be taken that it didn’t kill the patient along with his worms!
The root also caused a violent reaction if applied externally. In 1653 the herbalist Culpeper wrote that if this part of the plant be beaten to and “strewed on foul ulcers” it would heal by instantly consuming the dead flesh.
The root of this plant also has a long history of being used for mental illness. Medicines made from this plant were regarded as such sovereign cures for depression that in his portrait on the frontispiece of his ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, Robert Burton shows the flower. It has also been used to treat the opposite mental health affliction of mania, and as late as 1931, Mrs Grieve was recording in her herbal that it was useful in cases of nervous disorder and hysteria.
Perhaps most intriguing is its use in animal medicine. We know from Culpeper that in the 1600s “Country people use it for the cure of such beasts as are troubled with the cough, or have taken any poison, by boring a hole through the ear & putting a piece of root therein: this they say, will give relief in twenty-four hour’s time.” He also wrote that it was used by farriers “for many purposes”, but what these were he doesn’t say.
Today the Christmas Rose is valued for the beauty of its blooms rather than for its dramatic effects on the human body.
Culpeper, Nicholas. 1653. The English Physitian Enlarged. London.
Greive, Maude. 1931. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications.
Hatfield, Gabrielle. 2007. Hatfield’s Herbal: The Curious Stories of Britain’s Wild Plants. London: Penguin.
To cite this post : Julie Wakefield, “The Christmas Rose as a Medicinal Plant”, From the Herb Garret (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), December 1st, 2016.
Julie Wakefield began specialising in herbalism at the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. As a former staff member at the Old Operating Theatre she delivered talks on past uses of plants both in the Herb Garret and Southwark Cathedral’s herb garden. She is an active member of the Historic Herbalism Research Network and a university guest lecturer.