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.