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. §

10 Ways to Bring More Joy to Your Days

Hard to believe we are already three months into the new year. My personal mantra for this year is Joie de Vivre, or joy of living. Honestly, on more than one occasion I double-checked my poor French didn’t cause me to sign-up for more stress, than joy, in my vivre!

Of course, true advocates of la joie de vivre would say it’s when things get a little crazy, or fou in French, that we must remember to celebrate life’s simple joys. We each have our own ideas about what brings happiness, but here are ten areas where we can all find more everyday joy.

1. Dining ~ No matter what we’re eating, we can make meals a more pleasant ritual. We can take time to put our food on a pretty plate and sit down with a placemat and napkin. We can turn off the television and put away our phones. It will soon be warm enough to dine al fresco. Savoring our meals with gratitude is a simple joy we often take for granted.

2. Nature ~ Research indicates many people, especially children, are increasingly experiencing a nature deficit. With spring right around the corner, most of us are eager to get outside in the fresh air. Take a walk. Listen to the birds. Enjoy the sunshine. Nature is good for the mind, body, and soul, and it is such a simple way to increase our joy.

3. Creativity ~ When we get lost in something creative, we give our brains a break from fret and worry and get into a meditative state some scientists call flow. Whether we enjoy gardening, cooking, painting, quilting, or some other hobby, delving into a creative pursuit is where we can find our happy place.

4. Flowers ~ Flowers bring joy to any space. I’ll never forget how my students reacted when I brought in fresh flowers for our classroom. It won’t be long before the earth will be speaking to us through blossoms of every type and color. Pick a single flower or budding tree limb and arrange it in a vase of water for instant happiness.

5. The Arts ~ The arts have always brought joy to humanity. Thankfully, we all have different tastes in architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, performance, and film, but we know what makes our heart sing. Until we can safely return to our beloved museums, libraries, and theaters, we can explore the arts at home. I’m already planning my trip to see the Van Gogh Immersive Experience in Chicago.

6. Wardrobe ~ Opening an organized closet filled with a small selection of clothing I want to wear brings me such joy. I personally love the simplicity and femininity of dresses. I’ve already put away my darker, heavier ones and brought out my spring things. Getting dressed is something we do every day, and it can easily become something that brings us joy.

7. Attitude ~ Nothing adds more joy to our days than having a positive attitude. Cultivating a good attitude is a daily habit. Whatever we focus on seems to increase, so it only makes sense to think on the positive. Long ago I heard someone say we can choose to wake up and say, “Good God, morning” or “Good morning, God.” The choice is ours!

8. Color ~ What colors bring you joy? This week I looked at thousands of rugs at a large decorating store. I had to dig deep to find one in a color that made me smile. That peachy-coral rug and a few cans of paint in fresh, happy colors have made our new house feel like home. To a large extent, we have a choice about the colors that surround us. What color do you need more of in your life?

9. Self-Care ~ Sometimes we need to pamper ourselves a little. My sister sent me a gift set of heavenly lavender-scented bath products. She knows how much I value the simple joy of closing the door and luxuriating in an hour or so of at-home beauty treatments. It’s not about primping and preening for vanity’s sake. It’s about taking time to care for ourselves, so we can take care of others.

10. Spirituality ~ Our spiritual growth is a lifelong process that can bring us the ultimate joy. We can seek it throughout our days from books, music, meditation, scripture, yoga, art, nature, prayer, silence, service, and religious practices. Many would agree, the greater our spirituality, the greater our joy. It was Mother Teresa who reminded us, “Joy is strength.” §

(To read more about the French expression, Joie de Vivre, please go to my January article at http://www.thesimpleswan.com/2021/01/03. Merci!)

Thank Goodness Some Things Never Change

While we hold our collective, anxious breath and nervously adjust to the challenges of a pandemic, nature seems blissfully above it all. The sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. The moon still lights the darkness, and the Earth still steadily spins. Thankfully, some things never change.

Everything from school to restaurants to sporting events is cancelled or closed, but nothing is stopping nature from putting on its annual spring show. “That is one good thing about this world,” wrote author Lucy Maud Montgomery, “there are always sure to be more springs.”

Robins have returned with their round orange bellies. They poke their beaks into ever-warming ground with delight. Forsythia bushes bloom in wild sprays of yellow. Willow trees glow with a promising haze of green. Daffodils, crocus and purple snowdrops decorate tired brown corners with cheerful bouquets.

At a time when nothing seems certain, it’s as if nature understands the importance of offering something beautiful on which we can depend. The familiar signs of spring urge us to take notice of other comforts and joys we tend to take for granted.

We still have running water and electricity. There is plenty of food and, despite our concern, enough toilet paper. A free press keeps us well-informed. We stay in touch with loved ones through phones and computers. We borrow a tool from one neighbor and lend an egg to another.

We still sleep, work, play, talk, worry, love and laugh. Some things never change.

We know life may get worse before it gets better. If history tells us anything, we can trust the better angels of humanity will prevail. We will help each other and count on each other just as we can count on the sun to come up each morning.

No one could argue the joys of a pandemic, but it could bring us a positive shift in perspective and gratitude. Poet May Sarton wrote, “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.”

Tonight, billions of stars will shine in our universe and billions of prayerful faces will look up to make a surprisingly similar wish. Some things never change. §