Hellebore Flower Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance Around the World
Hellebore flowers are beautiful to behold with graceful sepals and vibrant, nectar-holding petals. These flowering plants are not only beautiful to look at, but Hellebores are also rich with symbolic meaning and multiple mentions in mythology and folklore.
- The Meaning and Symbolism of Hellebore Flowers – The Essentials
- About Hellebore Flowers
- Uses and Benefits of Hellebore Flowers
- The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Hellebores
- Hellebore Flower FAQs
- Alluring Plants for Your Winter Garden
The Meaning and Symbolism of Hellebore Flowers – The Essentials
In the Victorian language of flowers, hellebore symbolized delirium, according to The Language of Flowers printed in New York in 1834. Today, hellebore’s symbolic meanings include peace, serenity, and tranquility in addition to anxiety, stress, and scandal.
About Hellebore Flowers
Family, Genus, and Taxonomy
About 20 species of plants (and several subspecies) are commonly called hellebores or hellebore flowers. These species of flowers belong to the Helleborus genus within the Helleboreae tribe, the Ranunculoideae sub-family, and the Ranunculaceae plant family.
Hellebores come in both herbaceous and evergreen varieties. The plants feature rosettes of foliage that can range in color from dark and dusty green to a vibrant lime-green. From the foliage, shoots in either green or burgundy rise up to support the alluring blossoms of the hellebore plant. Hellebore blossoms feature five petal-like sepals and a center of nectaries that are actually modified petals that hold the plant’s nectar.
Hellebores bloom with sepals in several interesting colors and shades, including green, yellow, apricot, orange, maroon, pink, lavender, purple, blue, slate, nearly black, and white. Some feature solidly colored sepals, while others blossom with variegated patterns of two or more colors. These perennial plants are self-seeding and grow back every year to bloom anew.
Between species, hellebores boast various appearances with different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and types of leaves, flowers, petals, and sepals. Hellebore fragrance also varies between species, ranging from sweet to slightly skunky. Some hellebores emit no noticeable scent.
To What Regions Are Hellebores Native?
Hellebores are primarily native to the Balkans, with various species’ native lands spreading westward throughout Europe and eastward into Asia. There are two atypical species. One of which is native to western China and the other to a region between the border of Syria and Turkey.
History and Origins
Carl Linneaus first established the Helleborus genus in 1753 in the first volume of Species Plantarum.
Popular Types of Hellebores
Of the 20 species and several more subspecies of hellebore flowers, there are several varieties that are commonly cultivated in gardens around the world. Many of the favorite hybrids and cultivars that are grown in gardens come from the following four most popular species of hellebore flowers:
- Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) – This variety of hellebore blooms during the winter around Christmastime in warmer climates and toward late winter in cooler climates. The Christmas rose‘s flowers bloom in a snowy white and are adorned with golden yellow sepals.
- Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) – This species of hellebore blooms during Lent, and it is beloved for its wide variety. Finding a pure Lenten rose can be challenging because this species hybridizes so readily and easily in the garden. Its blossoms come in several colors, from pure white to a dark, almost-black plum.
- Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) – Despite this species’s off-putting common name, the stinking hellebore is actually quite pleasant to grow. It produces large flowers in a striking chartreuse color with petals that are rimmed in crimson. The common name for this species comes from the pungent smell that is emitted when the plant’s foliage is bruised or crushed. Tread lightly in your garden, and you won’t have to worry.
- Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) – Another favorite hellebore variety, the Corsican hellebore features light-green blossoms with vibrant green stamens and striking blue-green foliage. They bloom in clusters of numerous flowers from late winter through the summer.
Etymology of Hellebores
The name hellebore is thought to come from the ancient Greek word for Helleborus orientalis, which is helléboros. This word is thought to be a compound of two ancient Greek words: heleîn, which means to injure, and borá which means food. This could possibly be a reference to the hellebore’s poisonous nature.
When Are Hellebores in Season?
Hellebore flowers tend to bloom from November (late autumn) through April (late spring), and most stay in bloom for about a month. The specific season and bloom time of hellebore flowers depends on both the species and climate (growing zone). In warmer climates, hellebores will bloom earlier in winter. In cooler climates, most hellebores blossom in early spring.
Uses and Benefits of Hellebore Flowers
All parts of the hellebore plant are poisonous to people and pets. Historically, certain species of hellebore were used medicinally. However, any ingestion of the hellebore plant can put a person at risk of poisoning, severe illness, birth defects, and more issues. Plus, handling these plants without gloves can cause dermatitis, skin irritation, and rashes.
Due to the toxic nature of these plants, their use is primarily ornamental, and they are lovely to grow in gardens, as their beautiful blossoms brighten up the dreariness of winter.
The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Hellebore Flowers
Hellebore Flower Meaning in the Victorian Language of Flowers
According to The Language of Flowers printed in New York in 1834, hellebore flowers symbolized delirium during the Victoria era.
Modern Hellebore Flower 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 and Symbolism
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 a person picking or digging up a hellebore plant, the eagle would kill that person. In order 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 Flower Meaning 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 said 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 for Hellebore Flowers
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 time. They can be an unexpected and fun alternative to the more traditional living holiday gifts of poinsettias, amaryllis, Easter lilies, tulips, and daffodils.
Hellebore Flower FAQs
What does a hellebore flower symbolize?
In the Victorian language of flowers, the hellebore symbolizes delirium. In modern traditions of flower symbolism, the hellebore represents peace, serenity, and tranquility, in addition to scandal and anxiety.
Are hellebores lucky?
Hellebores are not considered to be traditionally lucky flowers. However, green flowers can be a symbol of good fortune, so green hellebore varieties could be considered to be somewhat lucky.
Do hellebores come back every year?
Yes, hellebores are perennial flowers that bloom every year.
How long do hellebore flowers last?
Most species of hellebores produce flowers that blossom for about a month.
Do hellebores flower more than once?
Hellebore plants produce flowers that bloom once per year.
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.