In the Winter Weary
By Christine Hall
I have always had an eye for tenacity. In fact, my senior high quote was about “perseverance,” but the yearbook staff printed “disseverance” (which last I checked, is not a word that has anything to do with doggedness). But I digress. Let’s put it this way: If “spirit flower” were a thing, mine would be this. There is something tenaciously charming about a bloom produced in the depths of winter by a Hellebore. And at a time when the whole world seems to sleep, the dutiful Hellebore raises its head.
Hellebore, or Lenten rose, is a shade-loving perennial in the buttercup family that thrives in winter. Hellebores come in a variety of bloom color, including shades of white, rose, green or purple, and feature glossy evergreen spiny leaves. These plants are seen blooming in zones 6 to 9 up through early spring, often during the religious Lent season, which is how it gets its alternate name.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hellebores provide strong tribute to endurance – a welcomed characteristic when powering through less-than-perfect soil conditions in the Sandhills. While the Hellebore is resilient, it does prefer moist soil with compost and good drainage. Once established, it can withstand some dry spells.
Hellebores are native to Greece and Turkey, and were named when German growers began breeding them in the mid-19th century. Interest in the genus spiked in American horticulture in the 1960s. My interest spiked when I purchased a dusty rose hybrid at Mustard Seed nursery in Blowing Rock. In fact, buying at nurseries in winter or early spring while they are blooming is the best way to ensure you get the color and look you want. Exotic hybrids offer single and double blooms and spotted or un-spotted sepals that either are nodding or upright. I recommend upright varieties because they proudly display their color.
Another interesting attribute is its resistance to rabbits and deer, as the leaves and flowers are toxic. Animals naturally steer clear because of the bitter smell and taste. It is said that Hellebores contain one of the four classic poisons, along with nightshade, hemlock and aconite. In fact, the name comes from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure, and “bora” meaning food. I suppose we all have our vices.
Vegetative nutrition is not lost on all, however. There is a benefit to native pollinators. When we have unseasonably warm winters, Hellebores provide both pollen and nectar for local scout bees.
Mystic and Lore
Medicinal or “witchcraft” use of Hellebore dates back to 1400 BCE, when it was used as a purgative to “cleanse the mind.” It is also found in writings from the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages, when it was used by herbalists. Hellebore has also been employed for animal illnesses, or to keep them from evil spirits. It’s even written in one superstition that it can be used to make yourself invisible if scattered in the air. Ha!
While it likely won’t make you disappear in the melancholy of winter, if you need a reminder that spring will in fact return, look no further than this triumphant beauty.