Black Hellebore (helleborus niger)

One of a genus of 15 poisonous perennials, this European evergreen takes one of its common names from its beautiful roselike blooms that appear in the depth of winter. What can be seen aboveground is actually the plant’s flower stalk, topped with its white or pinkish white flowers; the plant’s true stem is underground.

This species was introduced as a garden plant and escaped, naturalizing in the northern United States and Canada. The genus name comes from the Greek elein (which means “to injure”) and bora (which means “food”); the species name refers to the dark color of the plant’s root.

In the Middle Ages, people strewed black hellebore flowers on the floors of their homes to drive out evil influences. Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), a Roman naturalist and philosopher, reported that the healer and diviner Melampus used this plant as a purgative for the treatment of manic conditions around 1400 BCE.

Black Hellebore

Plant profile

Common Names: Black Hellebore, Christmas Rose

Description: Perennial, up to 1 foot tall; deep green, evergreen leaves divided into seven to nine toothed leaflets; two or three white roselike blooms produced from an underground stem

Hardiness: To Zone 3

Family: Ranunculaceae

Flowering: January through March

Parts Used: Flowers (ornamental)

Range/Habitat: Central and southern mountainous regions of Europe, naturalized in parts of North America

Medicinal use

This plant is toxic and is not used in modern medicine. Black hellebore contains the cardioactive steroids hellebrin, helleborin, and helleborein, which act in a similar way to digitalis, causing irregular heartbeat. Even handling the plant — particularly its roots — can cause severe skin irritation and blistering. In ancient times, black hellebore was used as a powerful purgative for the treatment of parasites and as a treatment for certain mental conditions. But even at that time, using this plant therapeutically was considered very dangerous.

Ornamental use

Blooming in late winter to early spring, black hellebore adds welcome beauty to perennial borders, foundation plantings, rock gardens, and open woodland settings. Grow it alone or in groups.

How to grow it

Black hellebore thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil and partial shade. Slugs can become a problem; if so, use diatomaceous earth. Fertilize the plants in spring. Black hellebore can be propagated by seed or division; divide established (6- to 7-year-old) plants in spring, after they have flowered.

Caution: Wear gloves when handling this plant; some people experience severe dermatitis when touching the bruised leaves and roots of black hellebore.