Flowers and Folklore ~ the mysterious Lenten Rose

Flowers enchant me, especially when they are accompanied by a rich history of legend and folklore. Right in our backyard there blooms such a flower full of mystery, excitement, danger, and above all, promise.

When we moved into our southern Illinois house in late January, I noticed an odd patch of deep green tropical-looking foliage. I did a double-take a couple of weeks later when, through a frosty window, I thought I saw a flower blooming. I put on my boots and trudged through several inches of snow to investigate. Sure enough, a dark mauve blossom was peeking out under nature’s thick blanket of white.

I gasped at the sight, but I was also curious. Upon closer inspection, I knew the flower wasn’t an early-blooming snowdrop or crocus. A little research revealed the mysterious flower was a Lenten rose, known to gardeners as hellebore from the Latin hellenborus orientalis. Not a rose at all, this hardy perennial with evergreen leaves and a variety of colorful blossoms is part of the buttercup family. What a story this flower tells!

Helleborus means “injure food” in Greek. Yes, this pretty flower is poisonous. The Greeks were known to use it in battle to poison another city’s drinking water. Many scholars believe Alexander the Great died from a poisonous dose of hellebore. It’s also said that King Arthur’s sister, Morgan Le Faye, made an evil concoction of hellebore and gave it to Guinevere to prevent her from being able to conceive.

In ancient times, smaller doses of hellebore were used to treat a range of illness including insanity. In Greek mythology, it’s told that King Argo’s daughters were driven so mad by Dionysus that they ran naked in the streets mooing like cows. As time passed, their madness increased and spread to other women in the village. The healer Melampus, gave the women hellebore in milk to restore their sanity. Something tells me a ladies’ night out would have had the same effect.

It seems our tenacious little flower was also a favorite of witches during medieval times. Old world witches were famous for using it to make their magical flying ointment. They rubbed the hellebore salve all of themselves and took off flying. Of course, the poisonous herb has hallucinogenic effects, so it’s possible they only thought they were flying.

Certain there was some dark magic involved in a flower that bloomed in winter, people in the Middle Ages threw hellebore on their floors to drive out evil influences. Many herbalists at the time believed powdered hellebore could be scattered on the ground and walked upon to render invisibility. Now that’s something I might like to try, though I’d have to face east on a moonless night and hope I’m not spotted by an eagle, which would seal my fate of death within a year.

Thankfully, Victorian gardeners rescued the innocent hellebore from its more sinister and gothic attachments. Because the flower blooms during the season of Lenten, the hellebore became better known as the Lenten rose and was a favorite among the Victorians.

What a beautiful symbol that during Lent, a 40-day time of contemplation and preparation for Easter, the cold dead ground would produce a lovely flower promising rejuvenation and rebirth. In the Victorian language of flowers, known as floriography, the Lenten rose represents serenity, tranquility, and peace.

It’s mid-March now, and our patch of Lenten roses is in full bloom. The old palm-shaped leaves have fallen away and sizable clumps of new green foliage surround an abundance of flowers in white, yellow, pink and purple. On sunny days, bees dine on the yellow centers of flowers I’ve learned will last well into May.

It’s still chilly and damp outside, but in our warm and cozy home, cut blooms fill a vase with sweet and colorful flowers I now know are Lenten roses. Reflecting on their storied past, the exquisite blooms offer intriguing history and, most of all, the very real hope and beauty of spring. §

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