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Deadly Plant of the Month…

Hellebore "Sunshine Selections."

Hellebore "Sunshine Selections."

Hellebore “Sunshine Selections.”

A highly prized evergreen perennial that blooms anywhere from December to April, depending on species, is the Helleborus. Though not native, this plant is quite at home here in the Ozarks. Our Helleborus x hybridus ‘Sunshine Selections’ blooms from February through April in an array of colors from white to green to burgundy…. and is non-aggressive! This plant will readily colonize and at times need to be divided.

HelleboreCrystal Bridges’ Horticulturist, Cody George, and I split our Hellebore grouping at the top of East Terrace earlier this fall. This is where I’d like to share a word of caution. Shortly following the division, my forearms that were exposed during the transplant broke out in a rash…hmm. I inquired if Cody knew of any toxicity within the plant.  He didn’t, and so we assumed I held a sensitivity to hellebore and simply tried to forget about it. Later that evening, I decided to do some Googling. Lo and behold, this website caught my eye, “Hellebore: The Deadly Flower that Sprang From Tears.” Instantly I jumped to conclusions and decided Cody was trying to kill me! After reading the article I was subdued to find out that the hellebore is only deadly if ingested.

Let me share with you the stirring history of this fabulous perennial.

  • 600 BC- The Athenians sought to overthrow the port city of Kirrha. The city’s inhabitants were constantly raiding, looting, and pillaging pilgrims as they came to port. The Athenians staged a coup by flooding the city’s drinking reservoir with insane amounts of white hellebore leaves and roots. A few days later, the unknowing residents were distraught with “Montezuma’s Revenge” and were easily ousted.  The Athenians divided, conquered, and chemical warfare was born!  Eww, what a way to go out…


  • The mighty empire of Alexander the Great... brought low by the Hellebore.

    The mighty empire of Alexander the Great… brought low by the Hellebore.

    323 BC- Hundreds of years later, in ancient Greece and Rome, numerous accounts state the white hellebore leaves were intensely studied by Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates. During this era, the plant was used for a range of psychological disorders ranging from insanity, demonic possession, epilepsy, and melancholy, to dizziness. The plant was only to be administered by a trusted physician. It is suggested Alexander the Great, the “King of Kings” who passed during his prime in 323 BC, was dosed with a lethal amount of hellebore leaves which were snuck into the castle under a mule’s hoof by Alexander’s trusted cup-bearer. Twelve days later, he too was dead.


  • 323 BC- The death of Alexander signaled the beginning of a new time period, appropriately named the Hellenistic Period! There doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the plant name and time period, other than in Greek helle translates to killing. Just another fun fact!


  • 6-2 BC- This last story offers a more upbeat tone! Some may have heard of the black hellebore by another common name: the “Christmas Rose.”  This was born of a tale of a small shepherd girl who went before the newly born baby Jesus. However, she didn’t have any gifts to bear, not even a flower, for it was winter. As the girl began to weep, small flowers sprang from the earth: “Christ Roses,” more commonly called “Christmas Roses” today!

Hellebore illustrationTraditional uses: The Hellebore has been said to open doors to other worlds! Native Americans would crush the leaves and create a blend cut with tobacco and bearberry to smoke during ceremonies. The Europeans went a step further, concocting a snuff from the crushed roots, which they called “Mountain Snow.” After centuries of natural and/or intentional cross-breeding, the plant’s composition has been corrupted. There’s no telling if the same chemicals are present within the hellebore today as were there hundreds of years ago, or at what concentrations. Nevertheless, this is a plant not to be trifled with! Just to emphasize that fact, let me share three of the chemicals known to exist within the white hellebore:

  1. Jervine- a steroidal alkaloid causing birth defects in vertebrates
  2. Cyclopamine- a steroidal alkaloid causing fatal birth defects
  3. Veratrine- another alkaloid, functions as a neurotoxin

So if you seek to connect with other universes, leave “Mountain Snow” in the history books! Sincerely, Sam

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