Hellebores, sometimes called the Lenten Rose are a great choice to add to your early spring garden. They pair well with daffodils and the evergreen foliage works well to hide the yellowing leaves of the daffodils once they have finished blooming. The flowers last a long time and are happiest in the shady border. Even though the common name indicates they are connected to roses, hellebores have more in common with buttercups, since they are both from the Ranunculaceae family.
These plants are native to Eurasia, however, it is suspected that the Roman army was responsible for spreading them throughout the Europe. Most likely the plant was used medicinally as a purgative, however it is quite toxic, so could have been kept as an assassin's tool. In fact, there is a well-known incident where the Greeks (who were also well aware of hellebore's properties) crushed many plants and poisoned the drinking water source for the town of Kirrha in the 5th Century B.C.. This made the people inside so ill that the Greeks successfully took the town. It is also suspected that hellebore was the poison that killed Alexander the Great. As toxic as this plant is, there are very few incidents where people or pets are harmed. Hellebores are so foul-tasting that even the tiniest nibble is loathsome. It is still a good idea to see a doctor or veterinarian if child or pet does take a taste just to be sure. On the up-side, Bambi doesn't like the taste either and hellebores make a good choice for gardeners who are plagued by grazing deer.
The Latin name, Helleborus is derived from elein (to harm) and bora (food), so hellebores have a long history associated with poison. They were also thought to be vital to wizard's and witches' spells. The ancients believed that hellebores were responsible for the ability to fly through the air and to become invisible. Sorcerers also reportedly summoned demons with hellebores. Of course, for the magic work properly the plants had to be be harvested and hung to dry on a moonless night, otherwise, the enchantment properties were useless. Surprisingly enough, hellebores were also one of the many plants that were thought to repel witches and were planted around the doorways of homes. The well-protected medieval home must have had a jungle growing around its doors and windows with all of the charms for luck and witch-repellents that I've unearthed in my research. They were certainly a superstitious bunch.
It is interesting that hellebores are also associated with Christianity and the term Christmas rose or Lenten rose was coined in the belief that the plants bloomed for the Christ Child. Legend has it that a little girl visited the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem and was sad because she had no gift for Him. Her tears dropped on the ground and hellebores sprung up, so she was able offer them as a gift. It was said that when the Julian calendar was replaced with the Gregorian in 1588, that England refused to adopt it because the hellebores no longer bloomed on Christmas Day. Christmas was January 6th according to the Julian and December 25th, by the Gregorian and the Church took it as an omen not to accept it, so the Julian calendar was the official calendar in England until 1751.
Hellebores have a wide range of hardiness, growing from USDA 5A to 8B. They are frost-resistant and remain evergreen in much of their range. They naturalize well and form lovely colonies where they are happy. Hellebores like moist, well-drained soil with ample organic matter and are low maintenance with slugs and snails being the worst pests. They grow between 1 and 1 ½ feet tall and spread about the same as long as the ground isn't swampy or boggy. There are a number of named cultivars available with an assortment of colors and forms (even doubles!) However, they cross pollinate and hybridize easily so seedlings often spring up looking completely different from their parents, but I happen to like the mixture and find the diversity charming. We have a number of mail order sources that offer them, so it's easy to add a few to your garden.