Plant of the month: February hellebores

As January melts into February, the Winter garden is just getting going. A busy, stressful week at school has been made almost bearable by the scent of delightful Daphne, drifts of snowdrops and an array of crimson and purple hellebores planted beside the front door. I love the way they nod in the breeze; I appreciate that you have to gently lift up the heads to see their delicate beauty; I’m eternally grateful that they thrive in shade and withstand much of the late-Winter weather despite their apparent flimsiness. Best kept away from icy winds, they are content in our tiny, North-facing, front garden where the sorrowful, pendulous flower heads bring hope that winter is finally broken. A metaphor for this teacher right now.

Hellebores have an interesting backstory. Brought to Britain by the Romans, like many of the popular plants in our gardens, in the early days of medicine hellebores were used as a purgative or to treat gout and high blood pressure. (I’m hoping for a few more gout-free years!) Actually, they are extremely toxic in high doses; some historians believe that Alexander the Great died from a hellebore overdose. Inevitably for a poisonous plant it has associations with witchcraft but there is also the charming tale of the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) sprouting in the snow from the tears of a girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem. (Perhaps a few will sprout from my tears after a twelve hour working day and a boot load of marking.) In Greek mythology, the daughters of the king of Argos by ingesting hellebores were cured of a madness that caused them to run naked through the city, crying, weeping, and screaming. The madness of the classroom hasn’t reached such extremes so far but my little patch of hellebores provide solace and succour every time I return home.

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