There are a handful of flowers that rise above all others in my book. Cafe au lait dahlias, tree peonies*, fritallaria, certain garden roses….and hellebores. On the rare occasion that I find such specimens I tend to inflate into an monster shopper, and like a bride at a Vera Wang sample sale, I plow through aisles of flowers elbowing my way to grab the loveliest specimens for myself. I have shame.
But I also have gorgeous hellebores. I sit surrounded by them. People come in and I shout “They’re not for sale!” I cancel all my appointments. Tell my boyfriend I’m busy tonight. These lovelies need all my attention. You see, the hellebore is a sensitive flowers, and one must treat it with utmost care…
The Hellebore is a small genus in the Ranunculaceae family (to which the ranunculus, anemone and delphinium also belong). It is also known as the “Lenten Rose” or “Christmas Rose” and legend has it that when a young girl did not have a gift for the baby Jesus, she cried, and from her tears sprung up a white flower from the snow. I yawn.
Perhaps of more interest, is its medicinal powers and uses in witchcraft. Highly poisonous, small doses were used to cure madness and stimulate the heart. (Toxic doses result in cardiac arrest, and some postulate that Alexander the Great met his fate by a Hellebore overdoes.) Stringent precautions were taken when harvesting the hellebore, and legend has it that collectors would circle the plant with a sword while chanting prayers to Apollo. Eagles spotted overhead during this procedure were a portentous indicator of death within the year.
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The 411: Cut Hellebore are available from late winter to early spring. The most popular variety; Helleborus Orientalis bears a dusty plum-colored flower. When cut, they will last only 2-3 days before wilting. A florist in Paris showed me how to score the stems and this seems to give them an extra day or two. With a pairing knife just score a few lines 3 inches from the bottom of the stem.
Another trick to keep them looking good is to support the flowers by clustering them in a hydrangea or a bunch of lilacs – the support of other flowers in a tight bouquet will keep the helleborus upright, thus allowing water to be absorbed up to the flower head.
You can buy potted hellebores – they like to be planted outside, in the ground with good fertilized soil. They will flower from late winter through early spring – and a happy plant will keep it’s flowers for up to 2 months followed by pretty seed pods. They are sold as shade-plants, but will tolerate sun as well. Keep them watered during periods of drought through the summer.
Hellebore are a gorgeous option for early spring weddings – March, April, before peonies take center stage. Jus’ saying…and speaking of weddings, my boyfriend has recently decided that people should get married in Second Life. “Just think how cheap it would be!” he says. “Virtual food, flowers – anything you want! You could serve Dragon!” –Sarah
*Which I found for $20 a stem at the market last week. TWENTY-DOLLARS-PER-STEM. I held them for a few moments…and then very gingerly put them back on the shelf.