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 Things to Do While Waiting for Spring

My mom gave me a paperwhite bulb kit as a holiday hostess gift. I put the soil in the white ceramic container and planted the bulb with the pointy tip just barely peeking out of the soil. I set the pot near a window that gets plenty of direct sunlight and watered it as directed. The green stem grew quickly and produced a promising bud, but it never bloomed. The flower needed direct sunlight. Unfortunately, our forecast the past two months could be titled Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I’m sure I’d find as distasteful as our weather of late.

Are you feeling a little like my pitiful paperwhite ~ droopy, unproductive, and bit yellow around the edges? I’ve given up hope of my paperwhite blooming, but not on spring’s arrival. Here are ten ways to get us through the final stretch while we wait.

  1. Spread some sunshine. I’ve done my share of grumbling about the weather, but I’m challenging myself to go the whole week without complaining about it. Put a smile on your face, a spring in your step, and hum that Temptations’ classic, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”
  2. Buy some fresh flowers. It’s amazing how a bunch of inexpensive, grocery store flowers boosts my mood. Separate them into several containers, or plop the whole bunch in a single vase. Flowers help us possess what Albert Camus called an invincible summer, even in the midst of winter.
  3. Do spring cleaning now. Start in the kitchen by removing everything from the cabinets and pantry. Give all the shelves a good wipe down and put everything back neatly, discarding expired items and donating things you don’t use. Go through the same process in your bathrooms and closets. When warmer weather arrives, you’ll be free to go out and enjoy it.
  4. Shake up your routine. Especially in the winter, we can fall into a dull and monotonous routine. For a change of pace, take a different route to work, stop someplace for breakfast or coffee, browse a bookstore, shop at a different grocery store. Give yourself a little something to look forward to each day.
  5. Wash the car. As a child, I would often surprise my dad by cleaning his car, and it’s something I like do for my husband now. Crank the heat, climb in, and clean all the interior surfaces and windows. Pick up trash and wayward objects and vacuum the seats and floors. Go through the car wash, knowing full well you’ll hit several large muddy potholes on your way home.
  6. Escape from reality. A tropical vacation would be wonderful, but we can leave the world behind on a budget. Duck into a movie theater, stroll through a museum, go to the library, or binge watch a Netflix series. I recommend Monty Don’s French Gardens and Big Dreams Small Spaces, two delightful British gardening shows.
  7. Plan your spring garden. Decide what plants and flowers you want to grow in your vegetable garden, flower beds, and pots this year. Look at gardening books and magazines for inspiration. The photos are so beautiful you’ll bring them to your nose hoping to smell their delicious fragrance.
  8. Savor the sun. When the sun does make an appearance, however briefly, welcome it with open arms. Sit in a sunny window and bask in its warmth. Close your eyes and imagine you’re at the beach. One of my favorite quirky things to do on a cold sunny day is sit in my car and read.
  9. Finish indoor projects. You probably made a mental list of things you planned to do while cooped up indoors this winter. Paint bathroom. File paperwork. Organize photographs. There’s still time to check off a few things before spring arrives.
  10. Enjoy the season. By this time of year, even those of us who like winter need to be reminded of its beauty. How lovely that on a dreary February day, it’s perfectly acceptable to stay in our comfy pants, curl up by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate, and dreamily wait for spring. §