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The Underworld of Hellebores 

In the fifth century BC, the Greeks laid siege to the city of Kirrha after the Kirrhans attacked religious pilgrims on the road to Delphi. The war dragged on for years, until the Greeks devised a plan to poison Kirrha's water supply with the root of a plant that grew abundantly in a nearby area. The plan worked. Soon the defenders were terribly weakened by diarrhea, and the Greeks were able to march in and slaughter everyone.

The plant was Hellebore: Helle, Greek for killing, Bore, Greek for plant. The plant has had questionable associations and mixed reviews since that time. Witches sometimes used it to conjure up demons, while others planted it beside their doors to ward off evil spirits. It has been used medicinally to treat various ailments, including insanity and depression. The results weren't always good, for the toxic plant sometimes killed the patient. Some historians suspect Alexander the Great succumbed to hellebore poisoning because he was taking it as medication.

Do the beautiful flowers hang their heads in shame? Most hellebores do have nodding flowers, though a few modern hybrids look more outward than downward. Actually, the flowers nod to protect their pollen from rain, sleet, snow, and wind. New strains of hellebores come in rich colors, as well as double and even ruffled blooms, but a person has to work to appreciate their beauty. I can casually walk past a planting of hellebores, and I think they are attractive. But to truly see their charm, one has to explore their underworld:

1.  Get down on hands and knees and lower the head until level with the beauties. If one can stand on one's head, that will help.

2.  Hope the next door neighbor or the meter reader doesn't happen by while one's head is on the ground and rump is in the air.

3. Take photos with a good camera. Shove the lens in amidst the foliage and point toward the flowers. A lot of these shots may be worthless, but there will be some wonderful ones, too. A close-up picture brings out details eyes easily overlook.

Although my hellebores are single, without the frills of some new hybrids, I think they are beautiful. I have already done the inelegant work of photographing them, so here's a few shots that won't cost you your dignity:

Hellebores do best in moist, organic soil. They often thrive under deciduous trees, where they receive sunshine in late winter and early spring when they are blooming, then shade during the warmer summer. They can spread to make a nice ground cover. The leaves are evergreen, but tattered foliage should be trimmed before the plant begins blooming in late winter. Clumps may be dug up and their roots divided, and the plant also can be propagated by seed, though seedlings may not have the same characteristics as the parent plant.


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Reader Comments (24)

One of my favorite perennials! Your photos are fabulous! I was crawling around on the ground just last week taking photos of mine hoping no one was around watching me!

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKarin/Southern Meadows

Dear Deborah, Oh, yes, Hellebores.........my favourite early spring perennial. My collection has beenbuilt over many years, my earliest plants coming from Helen Ballard's own nursery in Worcestershire. She was a formidable Hellebore breeder and a great personality too. Every time I look at these most charming of plants I think of her. With your woodland I should love to have them in great drifts and would not care what colours or forms they were since, to me, they are all attractive.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEdith Hope

The camera really likes Hellebores. Your photos are lovely. I enjoyed reading about some of the history behind them too!

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSweetbay

I never knew of the diabolical Greek plan to poison their rivals. Wonder how they figured it out in the first place. A few Greek guinea pigs?

I liked your contortionist photographing too. Bloggers must look awfully funny to the neighbors when out in their gardens, no matter what we are doing.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Beautiful profiles of these wonderful plants. I hope it encourages others to look more closely. We miss so much when we just walk past what is at our feet and don't take the time to really look.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatty Hicks

What beautiful photos! How wonderful to see such detail. I have a couple of very small hellebores my mother gave me last year. I think it will take a couple of years before I see blooms. I can't wait. I never knew the gruesome history! So interesting.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthevioletfern

They are beautiful but I am quite sure these are suited in a tropical area, right? Nice collage and beautiful photos.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOne

Hi Deb,

Lovely photos and great post!

They certainly are shy plants, by many are at this time of year :)

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Fascinating history although somewhat alarming! And fascinating photos of this plant, although the rump in the air / nose on the ground posture may have been alarming to some too.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

Love this post! What a fun history lesson! I have a few plants that are good at keeping me humble. It's hard to be haughty when you're knelt over with your rump in the air. LOL.

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFloridagirl

stunning pictures that took a lot to get..would have loved to have seen you but I can imagine it since it describes what I look like to my neighbors...loved the legend as well...

February 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

What a fabulous post Deb! We don't grow Hellebores here, but I always admire them when I see them in other people's gardens. That said, I had not previously heard about their sinister past. It was wonderful to read a little about the history of this lovely plant. Even if its reputation is a little tarnished, it's blooms are still beautiful.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

I laughed when I read about your posturing to get a good hellebore picture. I knew they liked to hang their heads. Beautiful pictures, no matter what you had to go through to get them!

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHolley

Deb, I know a lot about hellebores and specialize in them at my nursery but was unaware of their sinister place in ancient Greek history. I usually turn the flower up to view it and prop it on one of its bracts to photograph it---no undignified positions required. Christmas rose hellebores have outward facing flowers and so do hybrids from them. I am doing a post on Christmas roses this week. Carolyn

Very informative and beautiful post! I was happy to see a view of hellebores from above as well. Most everyone shows only the blooms from below, which are beautiful, but only visible with some contortions as you so poetically point out. Chris

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGarden Sense

I am just getting to know hellebores and so enjoyed reading all the background history in your post.

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Deb, thank you for this post! My hellebore is blooming right now. Its time came!

March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

What a wonderful and informative post! I love hellebores and their nodding blooms.

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGinny

thanks Deb an interesting post, 'killing plant' what a name for such a pretty flower and a warning, you and your new camera take some beautiful photos such detail in some of them, Frances

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIsland Threads

Wot a lovely post!
And yes detail is worth looking at and humility and effort by the looker!
Lovely pics!

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Webber

Dear Deb - such an informative post on the mythology of Hellebores with your usual gorgeous images, obtained by such funny antics to raise the eyebrows of the even the most understanding neighbour. Worth every contortion though I do wonder why these beauties hang their heads so.

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura @ PatioPatch

Stunning photography Deb! Interesting read as well! Great post! You make me long for my Hellebores, which are buried beneath over two feet of snow!

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

Thank you for all this great information Deb. I have one plant that I've started dividing. I found an old tag under it and the name, which was all but faded was, Christmas Eve! I had no idea they had such a history, however, I did know that you had to make some rather unsightly adjustments to get nice photos! You did a wonderful job!

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEve

Beautiful photos! Definitely worth the trouble! I garden on a corner lot with a four-way stop, so I am always quite the spectacle. I know the feeling.

My H. are just barely budding... no blooms for weeks yet. This will help me to hold out.

Thank you!!!

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWife, Mother, Gardener

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