The dusty-pink flowers of the hellebore droop like the snowdrops, but its modesty is false. Unlike the pert green shoots of the bulbs, its leaves are tousled, as if it has woken from its winter’s sleep with bad hair. Hellebores come in a spectrum of colors. One winter-blooming pale-pink-and-white variety is called Christmas rose: a shepherd girl, weeping because she had nothing to offer the newborn Christ, attracted the attention of a sympathetic angel, who revealed the flower where her tears had fallen. But this particular specimen is no blushing virgin. Its petals (sepals, technically) are veined, green-tinged, leathery. They make me think of dragon wings, arresting and faintly menacing. Hellebore, from the Greek for “injure” and “food,” is poisonous and feared in folklore along with hemlock, nightshade, and aconite. In the 6th century B.C., the League of Delphi attacked the fortified city of Kirrha, poisoning the city’s water supply with crushed hellebore leaves, whereupon diarrhea besieged the defenders from within—an early act of chemical warfare. The mythological seer Melampus was summoned by the king of Argos when his three royal daughters suddenly shed their clothes and ran naked through the streets, mooing like cows, bewitched by Dionysus. Melampus brewed a potion of hellebore and restored the princesses to sanity, thereby winning one of them to wed. Perhaps the plant’s purgative properties expelled the lingering influence of the god of wine.

more from Janice P. Nimura at The Morning News here.