Death and Beauty: Mr. Black Hellebore comes to town

image credit: Tie Guy II via Compfight cc
Although it might surprise you, Mr. Black Hellebore is currently enjoying the short hours of light and the low temperatures in Brussels. Well, Mr. Black Hellebore does not belong to the human race but to the vegetable kingdom; my respect for its weather preferences is so big that I have allowed myself to bestow upon it a proper treatment. The adjective “black” is due to its toxic reputation.
 Image credit Elephi Pelephi via Compfight cc
 
When the rest of life is more or less hibernating, hellebores thrive. They blossom from December to March in many public gardens of our city. I have already spotted several ones showing off their flowers in a flowerbed near the main pond of Josephat Park in Schaerbeek. These little bushes (1 or 2 feet high) are easily recognizable thanks to their leathery dark-green leaves. Their flowers range from white to rose for hellebore niger or Christmas rose (it has nothing to do with a real rose), pale green for hellebore corsica, and in a richer palette of darker hues in the case of hellebore orientalis or Lenten rose. I have one hellebore orientalis with almost black flowers (below)—as you are all well aware, black flowers don’t exist, you can only approximate through darkening other colours. My hellebore niger (with white flowers) is already blossoming in my front garden.
 
image credit © Ruskin in Brussels
 
Admire them but do not eat them! Their toxic reputation (so their scientific name from Greek “elein”, to injure, and “bora”, food) regards all parts of the plant; once popular as a medicine, one theory about the death of Alexander the Great was that he was given an overdose of hellebore. The cardiotoxic helleborin can be extracted from green hellebore, hellebore viridis. The adjective ”niger” (black) of the usual hellebore does not refer to its flowers, which are generally white, but adds up to its evil legend.
 
 
image credit © Ruskin in Brussels
 
You can buy them in supermarkets, markets and flower shops in Brussels for 10 € a pot—misunderstandings are rare since their French name is so similar, “hellébore” or “rose de Noël”—and leave them on your balcony or plant them in a humus-rich soil. They can stand up to -40ºC and are not very demanding. At the beginning I was not very successful because the plants I bought were too damp and got rotten. Afterwards, they have germinated so well from their own seeds that I may die of success—I have not included them in my diet. As they tend to interbreed you may obtain new flower tinges. Ensure the plants you buy are healthy and water them in summer if the weather gets dry in Brussels—we wish!