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The vernal equinox will be here in a few days. This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night. However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear). A few bulbs have already flowered: one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant. The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.
There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants. The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests. Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.
Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring. For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry. [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]
Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering. Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties. In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes). Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers). The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture. The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).
Fuchsias are flowering shrubs and trees which have gained vast popularity in the garden for their lovely colorful blossoms. The genus has nearly 110 different species, most of which are indigenous to South America. Additionally some fuchsias occur northwards into Central America and westward across the South Pacific on island chains such as Tahiti. The genus extends all the way to New Zealand where the largest fuchsia, Kotukutuku (Fuchsia excorticata), is a tree which can grow to sizes of up to 15 meters (45 feet) in height. The majority of fuchsias however are much much smaller.
The plants were first discovered and named (by Europeans) on the island of Hispaniola in 1703 by Charles Plumier, a French Minim monk. Plumier was a polymath who excelled at math, physics, painting, draftsmanship, woodworking, and the creation of scientific instruments. He was appointed royal botanist in 1693 and cataloged the plants of the French Caribbean over the course of several voyages. Plumier named the beautiful shrub after Leonhart Fuchs a Medieval German physician who was one of the three fathers of modern botany.
The flowers of the fuchsia are teardrop-shaped dangling blossoms with four short broad petals and four long slender sepals. These blossoms are usually extremely colorful in order to attract the animals which fertilize them–hummingbirds. The flowers can be red, white, blue, violet, or orange, but the majority of fuchsias occur in lovely shades of pink and purple. The purple-pink color of many garden fuchsias is so distinct and characteristic that the color itself is now called fuchsia (and has been since the nineteenth century). That is how one of the loveliest and most flamboyant of all colors (and one of the most nonexistent) has come to be named for a medieval German doctor!
Fuchsias form a small edible berry which is said to taste like a subtle combination of mild grape and black pepper (although I have never “harvested” the plants in my garden). There are immense numbers of hybrid fuchsias in cultivation in gardens around the world and whole horticultural societies devoted to the plant, yet it does not have the myth and mystique of other beloved flowers like roses, orchids, and lilies. Perhaps the new world origins of the fuchsia have subsumed the folklore of the flower. Whatever the case, fuchsias are a stunning garden treat. They are one of my favorite plants in my shady Brooklyn garden and fuchsia is a favorite color.
The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family. The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa. The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses). A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.
In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes. A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals. To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous. Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether. Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.
The fleur de lis is an ancient stylized representation of a flower—most likely Iris pseudacorus a golden-yellow species of Iris, native to Europe, western Asia and northwest Africa. The motif can be found as far back as Assyria and ancient Egypt, but it became universally prevalent after it was gradually adopted as a symbol by the Kings of France from the 11th to the 12th centuries AD. Apocryphal mythology from the middle ages maintains that the connection between the fleur de lis and the throne of France dates back much farther–to the very beginning of the French crown when Frankish warriors invaded Roman Gaul during the 5th century AD. According to the legend, Clovis, the first of the Merovingian Kings, who was descended from Merovech (himself descended from a river god), had a divine vision in which an angel ordered him to change the three golden toads on his shield to three golden flowers.
The first surviving instance of the flower in heraldic use is a seal showing the future Louis VIII and his shield strewn with fleurs de lis which dates from 1211. Thereafter Bourbon and Capetian kings made extensive heraldic use of fleurs de lis. The standard of many golden fleurs de lis scattered across a sky blue field was changed to three prominent fleurs de lis by Charles V in the mid 14th century.
Over the centuries other principalities, cities, and families took up use of the fleur de lis. The coat of arms of Florence is a large red fleur de Lis—although the shield is a comparatively recent innovation which does not date to Florence’s golden age. The heraldic device of the Medicis, who ruled Florence at its zenith, was a shield with five red balls. Over time Luxemberg, various popes, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also utilized fleurs de lis in their standards.
Since the earliest days of the movement, scouting (known in the US as the “boy scouts” and “girl scouts”) has been symbolized by a fleur de lis. The scouts’ founder, Robert Baden-Powell, a British military officer and aristocrat chose the fleur de lis as a symbol because it was used by the British Army as an armband to identify soldiers who had qualified as “Scouts” (reconnaissance specialists). Baden-Powell asserted that the boy scouts’ fleur de lis also symbolized the compass rose–which always points true north.
The fleur de lis is used by numerous New World cities and provinces which were once part of the French colonies before they were conquered or purchased. Many parts of French Canada, the Mississippi valley, and the French Caribbean still use the Fleur de lis for flags, seals, and coats of arms. New Orleans and Louisiana make particularly extensive use of the fleur de lis in local standards. The famous New Orleans Saints football team is symbolized by a golden fleur de lis which is an anomaly in a league filled with aggressive animal symbols.
Beyond the statehouse and the gridiron, bon vivants, artists and sybarites have also come to informally identify with the fleur de lis. It is seen in quixotic tattoos, extravagant fabrics, and luxury logos. It seems appropriate that the heraldic flower, once the symbol of warriors, soldiers, and conquerers has now come to be associated with beauty, pleasure, and leisure (which seem more in keeping with the nature of irises).
In grade school biology class we learned that plants use photosynthesis to manufacture their own food from light, water, and air. In almost every familiar ecosystem, the plants are somewhere down there at the bottom, dutifully turning out food for every herbivore (and thereby ultimately for everything). It makes the green kingdom seems so virtuous. The plants I wrote about this week as “underworld plants” are no exception–they provide us with nutrition, beauty, drugs, a way to get rid of lackluster emperors, even natural-looking color for unusually pallid shrimps! And it all comes from air, water, and sun.
However the grade school biology explanation does not provide a full picture. There are indeed plants out there that do not pull their full weight. Like a big dirty city, the plant kingdom has its own underworld filled with creepers and stranglers and suckers—and at the very bottom there are outright parasites. Some plants do not “make their own food” and indeed do not contain chlorophyll at all. They leach nourishment out of other vegetation. One of the strangest and darkest of these parasitic plants is Dactylanthus taylorii, the Hades flower, which comes from the forest undergrowth of New Zealand. Naming it after Hades might be unduly generous—the plant should probably be called the cancer flower.
Dactylanthus taylorii is the only species in the genus Dactylanthus and the taxonomical relationships of that family are anything but clear. The plant grows on the roots of various indigenous trees. It has not roots and no leaves but I connected to its host via a stem. The tree tissue where this stem attaches to the host becomes horribly distorted into a weird burl-like structure. The plants can be male or female and they are most often pollinated by the lesser short-tailed Bat, (Mystacina tuberculata) which the native Maori call by the evocative name of “Pekapeka-tou-poto” however the flowers also produce a nectar which smells like mammalian sweat. This apparently attracts possums who carry pollen between male and female plants (and perhaps did long before the evolution of the unusual short tailed bat—a creature which deserves its own post).
Like many parasites, the Hades flower is cryptic—it makes itself difficult to find. Because of this characteristic, there are aspects of the flower’s life and lineage which remain unknown. However the modern world does not seem to suit Dactylanthus taylorii : botanists estimate there are only a few thousand left in the wild. The plant’s decline is exacerbated by the fact that collector’s value the freaky wooden excrescences which they create. In the future the hades flower may indeed exist only in the hereafter.
The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl. According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new. But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power. She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld. One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races. In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings. Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.
Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld? Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers. The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor. Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers. It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”. The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico. Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.
And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself? The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild! The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold. The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.
In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage. Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils which are an ingredient in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings. In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success. The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.
This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell. Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous. Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests. The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on. All aconite plants are extremely toxic. You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).
Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root. In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations. The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals. The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names). The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different. For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.
Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden. Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple. Perhaps their failure was a good thing. Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.
My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history. Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces. These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life. Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.
Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life. The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).
It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant. In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression. Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love. On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings. Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own. Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm). It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers. Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves. These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime. The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.
This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld. Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld. To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:
Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.
The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks. Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture. In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.
Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities. Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead. So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.
In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss. William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life. Here is a poignant fragment:
Of asphodel, that greeny flower, like a buttercup upon its branching stem- save that it's green and wooden- I come, my sweet, to sing to you. We lived long together a life filled, if you will, with flowers. So that I was cheered when I came first to know that there were flowers also in hell. Today I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers that we both loved, even to this poor colorless thing- I saw it when I was a child- little prized among the living but the dead see, asking among themselves: What do I remember that was shaped as this thing is shaped? while our eyes fill with tears. Of love, abiding love it will be telling though too weak a wash of crimson colors it to make it wholly credible. There is something something urgent I have to say to you and you alone but it must wait while I drink in the joy of your approach, perhaps for the last time.
The garden at my new residence contains a variety of beautiful old trees (like the cherry tree which I wrote about this spring). While the trees are delightful and are clearly the best features of the garden, they do make flower gardening a challenge. Fortunately there is a very beautiful plant that thrives in the dappled shade—the foxglove. I just planted two mature specimens which I obtained from the nursery and I am delighted with them! I thought I should feature a picture of them here before their flower spikes get broken.
Because they are so tall and elegant, foxgloves have been a garden mainstay for an extremely long time. About twenty species of wild foxgloves (the genus in named “digitalis”) are indigenous to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. The plants are biennials and they produce foliage in a low basal clump. During the plant’s second year, a tall rosette rises from the leaves and produces a series of purple, white, or pink tube-shaped flowers. The throats of these flowers are mottled with lovely speckles.
Foxgloves have long been associated with magic and myth. In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno was angered that Jupiter had given birth to Minerva without a mother. Juno aired this grievance to Flora, the goddess of flowers, who then lightly touched the queen of gods on her breasts and belly with a foxglove. Juno was impregnated and gave birth to the war god Mars, who, in the Roman canon has no father (like certain turkeys!). The Scandinavians call the plant “fox bells” a name which references an ancient fairy tale about how foxes magically ring the flowers when hunters are coming (so as to warn their kind of peril). On her botanical folklore website, Allison Cox wrote “In Wales, foxglove was called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.”
Unfortunately, the plant has a very real dark side. All parts of the foxglove are toxic. Mammals that have ingested digitalis suffer tremors and nerve disorders (particularly xanthopsia, a visual impairment in which the world becomes suffused with yellow and haloes appear around lights). Even a small amount of the poison is enough to cause deadly disturbances of the heart.
Because of its ability to affect the heart, digitalis was one of the very first cardiac medicines. The biochemistry website “Molecule of the Month” relates that, “Digitalis is an example of a cardio-active or cardiotonic drug, in other words a steroid which has the ability to exert a specific and powerful action on the cardiac muscle in animals, and has been used in the treatment of heart conditions ever since its discovery in 1775.” The site has a very entertaining anecdote about how William Withering, the proper English doctor who made this discovery was forced to prowl the forgotten byways of Shropshire and bargain with a gypsy sorceress to find out which compound had healed a patient with a fatal heart problem.
Because foxglove was actually useful for certain heart problems, it was also prescribed (or self-administered) to people suffering from palsies and nervous disorders. There were very few effective neurological drugs available at the time and it was believed that digitalis might somehow help (an unfortunate fallacy). Legend relates that Van Gogh used foxglove to treat his epilepsy. If true it might explain the yellow hue of his late paintings. Digitalis poisoning is known to cause xanthopsia, but whether Van Gogh was truly inspired by the poison flower or just loved yellow will probably forever remain unknown.
Spring has not sprung in Brooklyn–not at all. However, as winter marches on and the days slowly become longer, the garden begins to beckon. Nature’s ancient power will not be denied. My garden may be ice and mud but, out there in the wider New York area, the very first flowers of the season have already come into bloom. Looking at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden bloom list reveals that the hellebores have just opened up (unless you are reading this at some later point, in which case its still a great link).
Hellebores are also called Lenten roses because they come into blossom so early. The name is a complete misnomer since they are actually part of the Ranunculaceae family along with buttercups and, um, ranunculuses. The plants are very beautiful. The pure white H. niger blooms even in the midst of frost and snow. Helleborus orientalis is widely grown for the many delicate colors of its flowers. Despite its ghastly name, Helleborus foetidus is known and loved for its pale green flowers which stand out prettily against its dark evergreen leaves. Do not, however, be taken in by the beauty of the hellebores: they contain a very potent toxin. Some species such as H. viridis contain compounds which cause ringing of the ears, confusion, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, slowing of the heart, and ultimately death from cardiac arrest. Even the virginal white Helleborus niger causes burning sensations, oral sores and terrifying gastritis when ingested so do not eat these plants!
Hellebores grow widely across Europe and the near east, however the greatest concentration of species can be found around the Balkans. Many myths and legends have come to be associated with the dangerous plants. The flowers were sacred to Hecate the underworld godess of magic, sorcery, and crossroads. This association with witchcraft and the underworld has made the hellebore the subject of much dark poetry.
In the absence of useful remedies, ancient Greek physicians treated psychological disorders with hellebore. It has been speculated that Alexander the Great may have died from hellebore which he was self-administering. Hellebore holds a further place in history as an early chemical warfare agent. During the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC, the Greek besiegers poisoned the city’s water supply with hellebore. So many of the defenders were undone by the herb’s purgative effects that the city fell and the Greeks slaughtered all of the inhabitants.
Hmm, that got darker then I intended, my real point was to enjoy the first lovely blooms of the year. Spring is finally on its way!