Name: Christmas Rose (Helleborus Niger)
Otherwise known as: Black Hellebore, Melampode
Habitat: A perennial member of the Ranunculaceae family growing up to 40cm in woodlands and rocky slopes in Europe. It has a thick, black rhizome that supports spindly, erect stems with dark green, lanceolate leaves and bears a solitary white flower that blooms in the depth of winter.
What does it do: The common name arises from the claim that a plant grew on the site where the tears of a child who was attending the birth of Christ fell as he regretted having no gift for him. At one time the plant was known as Melampode, after the physician, Melampus (1400 BCE) who, according to Pliny, used the plant to cure the mania suffered by the daughters of the King of Argos.
In the Middle-Ages, English farmers blessed their stock with this plant to protect them from witchcraft. Sorcerers at risk of incarceration or death when travelling through enemy countries would cloak themselves in the flowers of Christmas Rose, which they claimed made them invisible. The alchemist Paracelsus blended the roots and flowers in his ingredients for ‘the elixir of life’. Gerrard claims: ‘…old farriers cut a slit in the dewlap of the beast and insert alump of root, leaving there for days in order to cure a dry cough’.
As recently as the mid 20th century herbalists used tinctures to treat dropsy (oedema) but the purgative effect was so dramatic the practice was abandoned. It is still used in central Europe as an anthelmintic and a purge for food poisoning. Homeopaths use the petals in tinctures to improve oral and nasal sensitivity in cases where the senses have been lost through disease or surgery. The plant is highly poisonous and has been responsible for many fatalities in domestic animals, and sometimes children.
Research indicates the plant may have properties valuable in the treatment of nervous diseases.