Autumn and winter is coming to central Europe and to the Alpine regions and with them the dying of the plants, the falling of the leaves, the decay of all what is sprouting, blossoming and producing fruits and seeds during spring and summer.
Soon enough there is the first snow, covering the ground, giving a definite stop to plants life. Light your oven, prepare your skies and wait till springtime for the first tiny blossoms to reappear……
You are wrong!
No, this is not about global warming and the sometimes dramatic changes in weather behaviour even in our European moderate climate. This is not about plants of southern or eastern warmer regions migrating slowly into our regions.
I am talking about a true rebel.
I am talking about Helleborus niger, the snow rose.
This plant is just amazing.
It blossoms from November through April. There is a huge (about 10 cm in diameter) blossom on a robust caulis sometimes coming directly out of the snow. It is a spotless white blossom with five blossom leaves (sepals) and inside yellow petals and stamina which give an impressive appearance. At first you nearly see nothing because the developing blossom is bowed toward the earth and is mostly well hidden beneath the snow. Then the plant breaks through the snow cover and the incredible blossom unfolds, turning towards the sun and opening itself widely to the surrounding. This is such an overwhelming appearance in a season without any other visible plant life that people where always deeply touched by this plant. They called it rose because of the beauty of its appearance, snow rose, because it often comes directly out of the snow, Christs rose, because if the conditions are favourable the plant blossoms through Christmas time.
Then as time goes on the blossom leaves are getting gradually redder and redder and inside a huge, green five or six - fold follicle develops thus forming the large fruits of Helleborus. Then the sepals are becoming green, the new leaves are developing and the whole plant disappears among the now upcoming new plant live in early springtime. The Helleborus fruits are ripe when all the other plants are starting their life cycle. The Helleborus blossom does not shrivel like those of normal plants, it is “greening” thus becoming more juvenile and taking over the photosynthesis until the new leaves a ready.
This is why I call Helleborus a rebel:
Helleborus blossoms in winter and has its fruits ripe in spring.
Helleborus first develops a blossom and then the leaves. The huge leaves you see beneath the blossom belong to the growth period of the last year.
It flourishes when (nearly) no other normal plant is in flower.
Helleborus has first the white blossom, then it is getting red and then it is getting green.
“Normal” plant life is mostly the other way round.
You will find it cultivated since the 16th century in traditional farmer gardens mainly in Central Europe. Blossoming starts there from late November through February.
As a wildflower Helleborus niger appears only in some parts of the Northern Alps from Vorarlberg to Berchtesgaden. It is common in some southern Alp ranges like the Triglav region, in the Appennine mountains and on the Balkan peninsula. You can find it there from the valley floors up to an altitude of about 1900 m. In higher alpine regions wildflower Helleborus flourishes later, when the snow disappears. But that is still winter in those areas.
Helleborus needs lime as soil so you will find it in our alpine region only throughout the limestone Alps. It does not like conifers very much, you will hardly find it among those trees. Mostly Helleborus is found among beech tree woods and above them in the area where the dwarf pines begin to grow.
Helleborus niger as a wildflower and all parts of it are strictly protected in our alpine regions.
As a medical plant Helleborus species (Helleborus cyclophyllus and H. orientalis) had been used by the old Greek and the Romans. “elleborus”, means in Latin “bright”, “fair” with respect to the white blossom. “niger”, Latin, dark, black, refers to the black roots.
Those roots were powdered and used as an ingredient of snuffs. This is the meaning of the German word “Nießwurz”, which means a “root to sneeze”. Our Mediterranean ancestors believed that sneezing helps against madness or epilepsy, caused by too much dark and bad bile. Thus the poor sick were forced to drink a liquid extract of the roots to cure them.
I don´t know if drinking Helleborus juice causes sneezing (never tried that by myself….) and if this was really helpful because the plant contains, as we know today, several toxins and the roots bear the largest quantity of them. It is mainly saponin, protoanemonin and helleborin, the latter having a specificity like digitalis. The effects of those poisons are dizziness, diarrhea and collapse. Poor Romans !
But we do know, too, that some things can be both, a poison and a remedy, it depends only on concentration and quantity. So Helleborus is an old well-known remedy and a new one, too.
In former times Helleborus was used mainly as a heart remedy and for diuretic effects. But people knew about the toxicity of Helleborus; there was a nice saying in the 16th century: “3 Tropfen machen rot, 10 Tropfen machen tot” (three drops will reddish your cheek, 10 drops will bring you death).
But most interestingly our rebel plant has other medical qualities which have been tested only recently.
Helleborus can be a helpful remedy against certain cancers. For those medical applications is used the planta tota and is diluted to specific homeopathic concentrations. It is used instead of or together with the cancer therapy based on mistetoe remedies.
And even in the HIV and AIDS therapy Helleborus is used and can have easing and healing effects on afflictions like kaposi.
As to myself I was attracted by this plant when I met it first on the still wintry slopes of Wilder Kaiser long time ago. The powerful appearance in the middle of the snow or on the still barren ground where the snow just has retreated, the brightness of the flower and this rebelling emancipation from all what we know as normal natural growth cycles is deeply impressive. From that time on I hiked nearly every year in springtime in the surroundings of Kufstein where Helleborus flourishes in abundance.
And every year when I meet this rebel plant, coming out of the snow with its white and yellow brightness, I feel happy again about those wonders of the nature.
Some interesting linksHelleborus niger - Wikipedia in German
Hellebore - Wikipedia in English
Homeopathic applications (German)
Homeopathic applications 2 (German)