It’s hard to be original in a Christmas blog and this is my 9th year of trying. In the past I’ve looked at poinsettia, mistletoe, ivy, amaryllis, and the Glastonbury Thorn. I’ve even looked at the ghastly xmas lights at Chiswick, and Victorian artificial flower decorations. Could I bear to look at the history of Christmas trees or Holly ? Actually NO I couldn’t.
Then I thought of having a day off and just referring you a really Christmassy post that came in from the Gardens Trust’s equivalent in New Zealand, about how a parachuting Santa nearly crashed through the roof of Auckland’s Wintergarden, but while I’d recommend it to you, that would be a bit of a cop-out.
Finally it occurred to me that very little has been written about Christmas Roses. Maybe that’s because they’re not roses and don’t often flower at Christmas. However they were once called the Christe Herbe because of a nativity legend associated with them so that was a good enough excuse to make them my contribution to the festivities this year.
I looked for its origins or any original source of how Christmas Roses became the Christ Herbe, but found myself going roudn the internet in ever decreasing circles being bought back to the same version, cut and pasted, from site to site over and over again. Luckily the British Library was at hand and eventually I tracked down a translation of a mediaeval folk story from southern Sweden, which is about about a shepherdess in Palestine. How “reliable” it is who knows – after all how would the story have reached Sweden and why should the resultant Swedish folk-tale be any more “believable” than any other – but its the oldest version I could find. It also clearly has echoes in many other stories in other cultures including Italy.
We all know the story of the shepherds being told about the birth of Christ while watching their flock by night. But you don’t usually get the additional information that was also a young shepherdess named Madelon amongst them. When the shepherds rushed off after the star to present the baby with their lambs Madelon followed along but when she got to the stable she realised she had no gift to add to the pile around the manger. She was so upset she burst into tears but as her tears fell onto the ground one of the angels hovering overhead noticed and took pity on her, and surprise surprise where her tears had fallen a flower pushed its way up through the snow. She then presented it as her gift to the baby. It was of course , of course, the Christmas Rose.
Sweden is also the origin of another much more interesting, and definitely more Norse-feeling story about the origin of the Christmas Rose. Written in 1908 it’s by Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940). In 1909 she became the first Swede and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and she often used folklore and legend in her work.
It begins with an outlaw and his family who live in a cave in a deep forest. His wife and children go begging every day, threatening those who do not give them food or alms. One day she arrives at the door of an abbey and manages to sneak into the garden where she stands in awe of how beautiful it is. The monks try to shoo her out but she refuses and threatens violence and so the abbot is sent for. He tries a different approach and asks if she likes the garden. Yes she replies but it is still not as beautiful as another one I have seen. The abbot is surprised and even more so when she tells him it only appears on Christmas Eve when the forest is turned into paradise in honour of the Christ child.
To cut a long story very very short…and here’s a link to a fuller illustrated version... the abbot goes to the forest on Christmas Eve and meets the robber’s wife, sees the forest transformed and reaches down to pick a flower to take back to the abbey. Sadly he dropped dead as he did so. When the monks came to take his body back to the abbey for burial his hand was found to be clasping not a flower but some shrivelled black roots. These were planted in the abbey garden where they bloomed the following year as, of course, Christmas Roses.
In both stories of course the Christmas Rose is Helleborus niger or the black hellebore. This is one of about 15-20 species of hellebores depending on who you read. They are in the the Ranunculaceae or wider buttercup family and found right across Eurasia, with their main centres of distribution in the Balkans. Generally growing in lightly shaded woodland, they tend seed prolifically which has led to considerable variability within each species. The name of the black hellebore is confusing because its flowers are not black but white, sometimes with a touch of green, or occasionally pink. In fact its name derives from the colour of its roots.
And why call them Christmas roses when they rarely flower at Christmas – indeed mine never do – instead the Germans nickname for them, Schneerose or Snow Roses, is more accurate since the flowers are much more likely to appear later in the winter or early spring . And finally of course they have nothing to do with roses apart from the resemblance of their “flowers” to single briar roses. I put “flowers” in quotes because what we take to be flowers are actually sepals or modified leaves designed to protect the flower buds as they form and before they open. The “real” flowers are tiny and hardly noticeable.
But why hellebore as a gift to celebrate Christ’s birth? It’s an odd choice since all hellebores are highly toxic, a fact which was well recognised in the ancient world. Indeed they probably take their name from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure, and “bora” meaning food. Helleborus niger was one of the four major poisonous plants mentioned in classical medical texts, along with aconite, hemlock and nightshade. Its principle toxin is helleborine which is very powerful and fatal in high doses, otherwise leading to severe cardiac problems, vomiting, and skin problems, while at the very least it causes diarrhoea. Believe out or not that particular property has been turned to human advantage.
As so often in legends or ancient history with limited evidence, there are several versions of the story, but they all relate back to Ancient Greece in the 6thc BC when the port city of Kirrha was under siege for for ten years during the First Sacred War. Whatever the variations in the story they all agree that crushed hellebore leaves were added to the city’s water supply. It didn’t take long before the defenders all found themselves weakened by diarrhoea and unable to resist the next assault. The result was the fall of the city and the slaughter of the population.
Of course, as with many other poisonous plants, if the toxins are taken in small controlled doses they can have beneficial medical uses, and so hellebore also appears in classical and mediaeval medical texts and herbals. Indeed most of the thousands of entries for hellebores on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website are concerned with their medical or veterinary properties. Extracts of the plant were recommended as both a laxative and diuretic, but also for the treatment of worms and dropsy, and surprisingly perhaps also for mental disorders such as manias and depression.
Again Greek legends have examples, most notably when the physician Melampus used an infusion of hellebore to cure the daughters of King Proetus after they were driven mad and ran naked round the streets. His quick thinking and actions stopped them from getting too carried away! [For a proper scientific look at this story see these 2 articles, one by Vasiliki Vasileiou and others, and the second by Matteo Olivieri and others]
This successful treatment led to the plant also being called Melampodium by John Gerard who gives us yet another a slightly different version “Called Melampodium it was first found by Melampos, who was first thought to purge therewith Praetus, his mad daughters and restore them to health.”
John Parkinson said hellebore was ‘good for mad and furious men, for melancholy, dull and heavie persons, and briefly for all those with blacke choler, and molested with melancholy’! This association probably explains why its one of the two flowers that feature on the engraved frontispiece of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy’ which was first published in 1628. Even as late as 1931 Maude Grieve in her book on herbs claimed it was useful in cases of nervous disorder and hysteria.
On a more mundane level Ground up finely hellebore was added to snuff because it can cause sneezing, thought to ward off evil spirits, and which probably accounts for another old German nickname Nieswurz, or “sneezewort” which you can see in the text of the image from Dodoens above.
All Very Christmassy!
What surprised me first as I looked for the history of hellebores is that there seems to have been no attempt to hybridise or improve the various species until comparatively recently. This was probably first attempted in Germany in the mid-19thc when gardeners began to work on improving Helleborus orientalis. This was already well known to be a variable species when grown from seed and trying to use cross it with other species increased that variability.
I’m not going to try and explain the intricacies of what was happening because as with most plant stories it is very complex, not to say confusing, because of all the name changes BUT it’s explained in more detail if you’re interested in Colston Burrell’s Hellebores.
It was only after that point that H.orientalis, which is now probably the best known garden species, entered the British garden. Then the work of German nurserymen was supplemented by a number of British amateur gardeners who began their own hybridising programmes. Notable amongst them was Peter Barr, better known as the daffodil king [who I’ve written about before] began work on hellebores at his Tooting nursery. By the 1880s he had about 5o named selections in his catalogues. After Barr’s death the nursery continued to introduce new cultivars well into the late 1920s winning RHS awards for several of them.
The first book on the family by Victor Schiffner , Monographia Hellebororum, was published in German in1890, but as as far as I can tell has not been translated. However the First World War put a stop to work in Germany and most of it in Britain. Most of the new selections and cultivars disappeared from the commercial market and there seems to have been very limited interest in further hybridisation until the 1950s.
From then on there’s a very different story being told as a small number of plants people began breeding programmes, and establishing new strains and crosses. The taxonomy is, as usual, is very confusing with crosses between crosses as well as species and subspecies. The result is a new group Helleborus x hybridus which makes a virtue of the impossibility of categorising each cross separately. I’ve found a relatively simple account of the process on a nursery website but if you want to know more I’d suggest reading the chapters on breeding and hybrids in The Gardeners Guide to Growing Hellebores .
But there are one or two people whose more recent work is worth highlighting for those interested in finding out more.
The first is the botanist Frederick Stern of Highdown outside Worthing who began experimenting with crossing different species of hellebores and achieved a notable success when he succeeded with crossing Helleborus lividus, a tender species from Majorca, with H. argutifolius, the Corsican hellebore, to produce H. x sternii.
It was this that attracted the second important name in hellebore breeding: Eric Smith. Smith had joined the staff of Hillier nursery in Hampshire in 1961, working as a propagator. He was later to move on to work at the Plantsmen nursery and finally at Hadspen House, working on hybridisation programmes of several important plant families including hellebores. Smith took Stern’s plant and crossed it with the white flowers of the Christmas rose, producing the group of plants we know today as Helleborus x ericsmithii.
Smith also tracked down surviving cultivars of the 19th breeding programmes in both Britain and Germany. Working with other great plantsmen like Jim Archibald this led to more seed derived selections and strains being developed, but also further crosses and back-crosses with wild species. There is an account of their work together in Graham Rice’s Gardeners Guide.
However, the greatest name in the world of hellebore history must surely be Helen Ballard, (1908 – 1995) who becameknown as Queen of the Hellebores. In 1951 she married Philip, the son of Ernest Ballard himself well-known as a breeder and populariser of Michaelmas daisies. He is reputed to have started his daughter-in-law’s interest in hellebores by letting her choose some Helleborus orientalis plants from his nursery. She planted two reds and two whites, in her garden at Old Country House in Worcestershire and that began a life-long obsession which took over the last thirty years of her life. [You can now stay there as her daughter offers B&B, and still boasts a border of her hellebore introductions. There are some beautiful images of them by Britt Willoughby Dyer]
According to her biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “her vision was of large, bowl shaped, outward and upward looking flowers on a stem that would hold the flower clear of the foliage, with pure, strong colours.” She was indefatigable, travelling in the Caucasus and around Europe for native specimens of the orientalis type. There are a couple of anecdotes about this in her section of Graham Rice’s Gardeners Guide.
Ballard hybridised with as large a gene pool as possible to retain vigour, and increase stability in seed grown plants and from the 1960s onwards introduced a superb range of hellebores. This included the first yellow from H. odorous, many dark purples from H. torquatus and the darkest slate coloured Helleborus x hybridus. While most hellebore flowers hang downwards she also managed to breed ones with outward looking flowers by crossing Helleborus niger with Helleborus lividus. Originally called Helleborus x nigerliv, they have now been renamed in her honour as Helleborus x ballardiae. Many of the finest garden hellebores today have been bred from Ballard originals.
Ballard arranged for her stock to be given to a German grower Gisela Schmiemann who continued the breeding programme, and also wrote Ballard’s biography. I can’t tell you more because there doesn’t appear to be a copy in the British Library and while the RHS Lindley Library which does have one the library is currently cl0sed because of problems with the heating system so I couldn’t go and see it there either.
After Ballard have come a host of hellebore fanatics notably Elizabeth Strangman, who ran Washfield Nursery in Kent. Like Ballard she travelled widely and collected extensively. She perfected a simple hybridisation and selection technique publishing the details in the Gardener’s Guide. Using some of the double forms she found in the wild in the Balkans she introduced several lovely double forms as well as many other new strains. She has now retired but encouraged others to take up the challenge, including Thompson and Morgan who took over her breeding program particularly trying to expand the colour range and introducing ‘Washfield Doubles’ the first 100 % double flowered strain from seed.
For more about Elizabeth Strangman a good place to start is an article from the Alpine Garden Society about a visit to her Kent garden or the article about her in the February 2022 issue of Gardens Illustrated. The work of these post-war pioneers has been taken up by others and Graham Rice has compiled a fuller list of helleborus nurseries and suppliers. His website also has more general information. Other good places to start are: Hellebores [RHS Wisley handbook] by Graham Rice, 2002; Hellebores : a comprehensive guide by Colston Burrell, 2006; and The gardener’s guide to growing hellebores by Graham Rice, 1993