You will hopefully have come across the hardy hellebore whilst out and about in January. Despite the cold and damp, hellebores poke through and provide a flash of lush green and subtle colour in shady spots. If you are yet to spy one or more, go and find them this weekend... they can often be found hiding under a tree in a shady spot in the park.
The hellebore is native to central and eastern Europe but became a well known plant in the UK by medieval times, and has remained fairly common place ever since. The hellebore has attracted attention throughout history (both good and bad) with accounts dating back to ancient times associated with poison, medicine and magic.
One of the most interesting stories recorded dates back to 585BC in Kirra (modern day Greece). The city was besieged by attackers in the First Sacred War (forgiven if this war doesn't ring many if any bells). Citizens were kept safe by the tall walls of Kirra, that is until the attackers poisoned an underground waterway with roots of the black hellebore. Drinking this water thus weakened the citizens of Kirra, with reports of sickness and hysteria giving the Athenian attackers their advantage and gifting them the subsequent victory.
Poisoning by the hellebore plant can cause tinnitus, vertigo, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue/throat, followed by vomiting... which perhaps explains how the plant was used so effectively as an ancient biological weapon of war.
Moving away from warfare, the hellebore has also played a significant role in both ancient and medieval medicine, featuring in many herbal remedies. The most common usage was to prevent, avert and/or heal melancholy and madness, which contradicts the use of hellebore in Kirra. We can only assume that physicians such as Hippocrates and Pliny the Elder thought that in small doses the purgative effect was good for the body (and also as a good diuretic and laxative). The behaviour of patients would have changed rapidly due to the weakness caused by vomiting and diarrhoea, allowing physicians to assume their antidotes were working. This would have been taken at great risk to the patient, although they might not have had a choice in whether or not they consumed the potion. It could be curative, it could be poison... bottoms up!
Further to this, the hellebore has been used and referred to in remedies relating to women's health (unfortunately written and prescribed by men, as was the norm). The hellebore is frequently noted as an emmenagogue (meaning to stimulate and increase menstrual flow) and an abortifacient (meaning to cause abortion). The Greek physician Dioscorides included the hellebore in his remedy for 'abortion wine'. So too did the early medieval book 'Macers Herbal', alongside other ingredients known for purgative effects.
Thankfully, usage of the hellebore for consumption is now under careful scrutiny and it remains the focus of medical research (but your GP will not be crushing up any hellebore root for you to digest). The fact that we are still interested in the medicinal and healing powers of this plant is testament to the subtle and fascinating hellebore, and it is not surprising that it has demanded our attention and awe for so long.
Moving away from war, prescriptions and poison, we should take some time in this slow month to appreciate the beauty of the hellebore. The hellebore has a unique and almost otherworldly ability to bring some life and colour to thaw the otherwise bleak and frozen garden in winter. Take some time in this slow month to seek out and admire the hardy hellebore. Quite a history for such a pretty plant.