BLACK HELLEBORE

Milan, 21 February 2020

My wife and I are in the middle of a multi-day hike down the eastern shore of Lake Como, walking a 45-km long trail which links Colico, located more or less where the River Adda flows into the lake at its northern end, to Lecco which straddles the River Adda as it flows out of the southern end of the lake on its way to join the River Po. It’s called the Sentiero del Viandante, the Wayfarer’s Trail. For any of my readers who might be hikers, I throw in a couple photos to whet their appetite.

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Since the trailheads feeding the trail can easily be reached by train from Milan, we’ve been doing it in stages, closely watching the weather forecasts and going only when the sun is predicted to be shining. We’ve done three stages so far, with one more to go.

On the latest stage, as we were crossing a clearing, we came across this flower.

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Of course, it gladdens the heart to see flowers blooming in February. It tells us that the Earth – at least in the Northern hemisphere – is waking up from its winter slumber. But this flower was particularly beautiful: large white petals surrounding a yellow-green centre. It was also quirky: this large flower was perched on a tiny stem, with no leaves that I could discern; it seemed almost to spring straight out of the ground.

As usual, once we’d seen one we saw many. Some were just opening. In others, the petals looked fly-blown, ready to fall. In others again, the petals were pink-veined.

On the train back, we started chatting with another couple whom we’d met along the trail. Suddenly remembering the flower, I pulled out my phone and showed them the photo of the flower. Ah, they said, in Italian that’s called elleboro. Pulling up my trusty Google Translate, I discovered that its English name is hellebore.

Hellebore … this stirred up vague memories in me, of poison and death. As the train racketed along towards Milan Central Station, I passed the time reading up on hellebore and saw that the plant is indeed horribly poisonous. “All hellebores are toxic, and all parts of the hellebore plant are toxic”, I read in Wikipedia. “Poisonings will occur through ingestion or handling … Poisoning cases are most severe when the plants are eaten … causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, anaphylaxis, emesis (vomiting), catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate), and finally, collapse and death from cardiac arrest.” Bloody charming … And it doesn’t finish there! “Dermatitis may also occur from handling the hellebore plants without protection. … The poison on the outside of the plant will cause irritation and burning sensations on the skin.” Jeez Louise …

Wikipedia also informed me that there are a good number of different hellebores. The particular hellebore we came across on the walk is the Helleborus niger, or black hellebore. I find this a strange name, given the snowy whiteness of the flower, seen here in a particularly appealing photo (also showing, incidentally, its natural range, the Alps, in the background).

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The blackness, it seems, refers to its roots, which are indeed somewhat black.

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It is the roots, suitably dried, that are ground to a powder and fed to unsuspecting victims: “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”, to misquote the three witches in Macbeth, whom we have here in an especially dramatic painting by a Victorian painter by the name of William Edward Frost.

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I had hoped that Shakespeare might have had them mention hellebore as one of the ingredients in their magic brew. But no. They mention eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog, adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, howlet’s wing. Oh, and fillet of fenny snake. But no hellebore. Nor is the plant mentioned in any of his other plays where magic and magicians play a part.

I was quite disappointed that the Bard passed hellebore over in silence. Because it did play a role in the magic of his time and earlier (and still does, if I’m to believe some of the web sites I’ve visited). It could be used to cause madness, or put a good curse on someone. It was good for both raising demons as well as banishing or exorcising them. Carrying it on your person could stop demons possessing you. Planting it near the entrance to your house would deter demons from entering. It was often planted in graveyards to gain the allegiance of the dead. It seemed especially popular in healing swine and cattle from illness and protecting them from evil spells (cast, no doubt, by jealous neighbours): “a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre”, wrote a certain Parkinson in 1641. Two properties attributed to it which I particularly like is the ability to make you invisible (scatter powdered hellebore in the air around you as you walk along) and to make you fly to witches’ sabbaths and suchlike (make an ointment of it and spread it liberally on yourself. There actually seem to have been quite a number of recipes for these so-called flying ointments; one I particularly like was given by Francis Bacon: “the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat”).

I have a great fondness of medieval witches and sorcerers, my vision of them having been determined by the comic books of my youth regaling me with the stories of two medieval boys by the names of Johan and Pirlouit. I throw in here a picture from the story “La Guerre des Sept Fontaines” to give an idea of the treatment of witches and sorcerers in these books.

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But enough with this childishness! Let me finish on a more positive note. A legend about black hellebore revolves around another name for it, Christmas rose. We are in Palestine. The Christ child has recently been born. A poor shepherdess, Madelon by name, has seen the three Wise Men passing through on their way to see the child. She has followed them and seen them presenting him with their valuable gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. She also wants to give the child a gift, but being very poor cannot afford to. So she stands at the door of the manger, weeping quietly. The angel hovering over the manger takes pity on her and decides to help with a little miracle. He gently brushes aside the snow at her feet and where her tears have fallen, spring up a beautiful cluster of waxen white winter roses. Then he softly whispers into the shepherdess’s ear, “these Christmas roses are far more valuable than any myrrh, frankincense or gold, for they are pure and made of love”. Madelon joyfully gathers the flowers and offers them to the Holy Infant, who, seeing that the gift was reared with tears of love, smiles at her.

Hmm, having just read about all the dermatitis you can get from just touching these plants, I can only assume that Madelon, poor though she was, was wearing gloves … This irreverent thought leads to another. I took this photo of a modern take on the three Wise Men, painted on the wall of a Milan house by a wannabee Milanese Banksy.

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I really must stop being so childish …