Hellebore flowers are beautiful to behold, with graceful sepals and vibrant, nectar-holding petals. In floriography, hellebore symbolizes delirium, according to The Language of Flowers, which was printed in New York in 1834. Today, hellebore’s symbolic meanings include peace, serenity, and tranquility, in addition to anxiety, stress, and scandal.
Etymology of Hellebores
The name hellebore is thought to come from the ancient Greek word for Helleborus orientalis, which is helléboros. This word is believed to be a compound of two ancient Greek words: heleîn, which means to injure, and borá, which means food. This could be a reference to the hellebore’s poisonous nature.
Hellebore Flower Meaning in Floriography
According to The Language of Flowers printed in New York in 1834, hellebore flowers symbolized delirium during the Victorian era.
Modern Meaning and Symbolism
In modern traditions of flower symbolism, hellebore’s symbolic meaning is slightly more palatable. Today, hellebore has come to represent peace, tranquility, and serenity. However, it still has a somewhat sinister side, representing scandal, stress, and anxiety.
Hellebore Flower Colors and Their Meaning
In addition to the hellebore flower’s traditional symbolic meanings, the color of the hellebore flower at hand affects its symbolic meaning; the colors of flowers carry their own meaningful symbolic weight.
- White – Purity, innocence, and sympathy
- Pink – Femininity, gentleness, admiration, and affection
- Red/Maroon – Passion, romantic love, and true love
- Purple – Success and royalty
- Blue – Love, desire, hope, and the unreachable
- Green – Rebirth, renewal, health, youthfulness, good luck, good fortune, prosperity, and wealth
- Yellow – Friendship, joy, and happiness
- Apricot/Orange – Enthusiasm, excitement, and passion
- Grey – Sophistication, formality, and strength
- Almost Black – Mystery, power, goodbye, farewell, mourning
Hellebore Flowers in Myths and Folklore
According to the Greek botanist and pharmacologist Dioscorides, a goatherd reportedly used black hellebore to cure King Proteus’s daughters of madness by purging them.
This isn’t the only place where hellebore is referenced as a cure for madness. In Greek mythology, Melampus was said to have used hellebore to cure the daughters of the king of Argos after Dionysus struck them with a madness that caused them to weep and scream while running naked through the city. Hellebore was also said to have cured the madness of Heracles (brought about by Hera) that caused him to murder his children.
Rather than being used as a cure, hellebore appears in accounts of the Siege of Kirrha by the Greeks in 585 BC as a method of poisoning the city’s water supply. Reportedly, the city’s defenders were weakened by diarrhea, which rendered them unable to defend the city.
Additionally, Pliny the Elder claimed in his writings that if an eagle spied on a person picking or digging up a hellebore plant, the eagle would kill that person. To safely dig up a hellebore plant, Pliny the Elder advised that one should draw a circle in the dirt around the plant and offer a prayer, facing east, before digging, but only on cloudy days.
Hellebore Flowers and the Christian Calendar
Since hellebore blooms in winter and early spring, two species are associated with the Christian calendar, the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).
Specifically, the species Helleborus niger which is commonly called the Christmas rose has close associations with Christianity. This flower appears in an old legend that says a Christmas rose sprouted in the snow where a girl’s tears fell after she had no gift to offer Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem.
Suitable Gifting Occasions
Since they are usually in bloom around the Christmas season and during Lent, hellebores have become popular perennials to give as gifts around the holiday season, during Lent, and at Easter. They can be an unexpected and fun alternative to the more traditional living holiday gifts of poinsettias, amaryllis, Easter lilies, tulips, and daffodils.
Alluring Plants for Your Winter Garden
Hellebore flowers come in several varieties and hybrids that can lend your winter garden a lot of variety. You’ll love to see the beautiful rainbow of colors sprout against the dreary backdrop of the coldest season.
Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.