The Hellebore

Green and Stinking Hellebores - Ellebore, Pied de Griffon, Herbe Ó SÚtons

Already, in January, the stinking hellebore will be flowering in the limestone woods of France. They stand tall and green amongst the browning grasses and bare twigs of the winter landscape. In Britain it is now uncommon. The green hellebore is even rarer. But both are scattered throughout France where the flora is undisturbed. The French name of 'herbe Ó sÚtons' is reflected in the dialect names in England of oxheal and setterwort. When a cow or bullock had an infection in the throat, a length of the black root of hellebore was inserted through the loose skin flap, the dewlap, below the throat. The herbal medicine passed into the blood and stimulated the flow of the phlegm. A sÚton is a thread or bandage passed under a bridge of skin, lifting it and helping to relieve a festering sore. The hellebores are toxic plants, but have been used, variously as medicines, since early times. The word 'hellebore' used for several unrelated plants is originally ancient Greek signifying 'dangerous food'. The Christmas rose is another species of the same genus. All have divided palmate leaves much in the form of a heavy foot or otherwise a set of claws, which gives them the alternative names of Bearsfoot in England and Pied de Griffon in France.

They are related to buttercups. A link between the two is the kingcup which has yellow flowers, but also carries capsular fruits like the hellebores. The seeds each bear a large white oily growth which ants like to eat. Ants pick up the seeds, eat the oil body and leave the seed at some distance. But not only do ants do this. It is written that snails and slugs also are attracted to the oil and they get the seed stuck to their slimy skin and so also carry the seeds away.

As they flower in the winter, one wonders how they get pollinated. But in the warm afternoons in winter there are some insects about. My guess is that it is the flies which come for the copious nectar which the flowers produce. The nectaries are huge, at least half the size of the stamens around which they are clustered. They have the form of medieval drinking horns. The insects which drink either are immune to the plant's toxins or the nectar does not contain them!

As a harbinger of Spring one could wish for a more attractive plant! The stinking hellebore truly pongs with a fusty odour. The pale green flowers each have a purple rim. These are colours and smells which might well attract the flies. The green colour would help the production of sugar in the pale winter sunshine, and the purple rim might absorb some warmth. . By mid-January some flowers have already set their seed.

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