Easter has arrived, and our table is set with a vase of exquisite little flowers that have been miraculously blooming in our backyard since February. This enchanting flower has a rich history that includes mystery, danger, and above all, the promise held in the breast of this beautiful season.
Shortly after we moved into our southern Illinois home last winter, I noticed an odd patch of deep green foliage. I did a double-take 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 a thick blanket of white.
I gasped at the sight and was filled with curiosity. 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 King Argo’s daughters were driven so mad by Dionysus they ran naked in the streets mooing like cows. As time passed, the 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 over 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. Though they had to face east on a moonless night and hope not to be spotted by an eagle thus sealing their fate of death.
Thankfully, Victorian gardeners rescued the innocent hellebore from its more sinister and gothic attachments. Because the flower blooms during the season of Lent, the hellebore became known as the Lenten rose and was a favorite among the Victorians. In their language of flowers, known as floriography, the Lenten rose represents serenity, tranquility, and peace.
Once again our patch of Lenten roses is faithfully 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, butterflies and bees dine on the yellow centers of flowers that will last well into May.
How beautiful that during Lent, a forty-day time of contemplation and preparation for Easter, the cold, dead ground can produce such a lovely flower. The bright little blossoms that fill a crystal vase seem too pretty to have such a storied past. Today, in celebration of Easter, they offer an elegant symbol of rejuvenation, renewal, and resurrection. §
“Let us rejoice!” – Psalm 118:24