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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

THE CHRISTMAS ROSE: HISTORY OF USES AS MEDICINE, NO LONGER USED


THE CHRISTMAS ROSE, BLACK HELLEBORE, HELLEBORUS NIGER 
The Christmas rose is also called the Lenten rose, as some flower in December and January while others are a little tardy and bloom in February or March the period of Lent which begins with Carnival and is a period of fasting until Easter. Black hellebore as the plant is also known, a direct translation of the Latin name of its genus, was once used in medicine as a cardio stimulant in much the same way as digitalis (from the foxglove) is. However it is highly toxic and is no longer used. It is not, as the English name suggests a member of the rose family, although the flower does resemble that of the wild dog rose, but a member of the Ranunculaceae or Crowfoot family, which means that it a relation of the buttercup, marsh marigold, black cohosh, goldenseal and the Lesser Celandine.
  It is a native of south-eastern Europe where it can be found in woods and thickets and sometimes in open grassland.  Its roots have, in the past, been used to get rid of intestinal worms, as a diuretic, emetic and to bring on women’s menstrual flow, but it was principally still used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance for melancholy and madness.
  Pliny the Elder writing in his Natural History says that
  “The fame of Melampus is well known for his skill in divination. One kind of hellebore was named after him and is called Melampodiam. Some relate, that a shepherd of the same name invented it having observed his goats to purge by eating it, and that, by giving their milk to the daughters of Proetius, he cured them of their madness.” Its fame for curing madness then goes back to ancient Greece.
  In 1621 Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Madness” was first published, (he was an Oxford don) in which are these lines: -
  “Borage and hellebore fill two scenes
    Sovereign plants to purge the veins
    Of melancholy and cheer the heart
    Of those black fumes which make it smart.”
If you feel depressed it would be better to try borage though as hellebore is extremely toxic. The name Hellebore comes from the Greek, elein meaning to injure and bora meaning food, so it is harmful food.
  John Parkinson (1567-1650) wrote that black hellebore is
   “…good for mad and furious men, for melancholy, dull and heavie persons, and briefly for all those with blacke choler, and molested with melancholy.”
   Nicholas Culpeper writing his “Complete Herball” in the 17th century had this to say of it: -
  “Government and virtues. It is an herb of Saturn, and therefore no marvel if it has some sullen conditions with it, and would be far safer, being purified by the art of the alchymist than given raw. If any have taken any harm by taking it, the common cure is to take goat's milk. If you cannot get goat's milk, you must make a shift with such as you can get. The roots are very effectual against all melancholy diseases, especially such as are of long standing, as quartan agues and madness; it helps the falling sickness, the leprosy, both the yellow and black jaundice, the gout, sciatica, and convulsions; and this was found out by experience, that the root of that which grows wild in our country, works not so churlishly as those do which are brought from beyond sea, as being maintained by a more temperate air. The root used as a pessary, provokes the terms exceedingly; also being beaten into powder, and strewed upon foul ulcers, it consumes the dead flesh, and instantly heals them; nay, it will help gangrenes in the beginning. Twenty grains taken inwardly is a sufficient does for one time, and let that be corrected with half so much cinnamon; country people used to rowel their cattle with it. If a beast be troubled with a cough, or have taken any poison, they bore a hole through the ear, and put a piece of the root in it, this will help him in 24 hours time. Many other uses farriers put it to which I shall forbear.”
  John Gerard had no such scruples and writing a century earlier says that the “old farriers” used to “cut a slit in the dewlap and put in a bit of Beare-foot and leave it there for daies together.”
  The root that Culpeper writes about that grows in Britain is that of Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus while the other hellebore native to the British Isles is Helleborus viridis, the green hellebore.
  The leaves of the plant contain the bioflavonoid compounds of quercetin and kaempferol among others, and the plant contains protoanemoin or ranunculin which is of an acrid taste and can cause mouth ulcers and a burning sensation in the throat, eyes and mouth. The plant reputedly kills parasites such as body lice and fleas, but is dangerous to use because of its toxicity and the fact that it causes irritation to the skin.
  In the past, where the flower grew wild it was used for strewing in houses to ward off evil and witches, although it was also believed that witches used it to make themselves invisible (as bracken seeds could be used).
  There is a legend which says that the flower sprouted from a young girl’s tears as she was crying because she was too poor to buy a gift for the baby Jesus, but took the Christmas roses to him after they had sprouted.

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