The Hellebore and the Oleander

hELLEBOREThese are two plants that have one major point in common: they’re poisonous.  Absolutely.  You can’t eat any part of a hellebore or an oleander safely, any attempt is likely to disagree with you violently, sooner or later.

The strange thing though is that despite being as poisonous as they are, humans for a thousand years have lived in close conjunction with them and the reason is that they’re pretty.

I love both though have only become familiar with the Christmas Rose (as Hellebore niger is called) recently because of the deer population in our town.  We have a nature preserve in the middle of the city, once stocked with a dozen semi tame deer.  A long time ago during a tight city budget, the deer were simply let out of their corral to forage on their own.

Sixty years later we have a problem.  No one near the nature preserve can garden unless they grow poisonous plants, and that is why Hellebore niger* is to be seen in practically every front lawn planting here.  It’s also why you can count on a sighting of Christmas roses blooming in the snow.  No matter how many times you see it, the unlikelihood of anything blooming in December is always startling, a photo op for Nature.

That’s been true for a long time.  In Gerard’s Herbal written in Will Shakespeare’s time, Gerard assures us that, “We have them all in our London gardens,” As opposed, one suspects to our country gardens.  Presumably London real estate was a lot cheaper in the seventeenth century.  Their reason for keeping a poisonous plant about was like ours, that Christmas roses are the only reliable flower in a December garden.  Indoors is a different matter.

oLEANDEROleanders are a double delight, because not only can you expect a few blooms out of season, but they have a heavenly smell.  This isn’t the real Mediterranean oleander though, Nerium oleander but Nerium indicum, the reason being that the European native has no scent whereas the Asian version has a smell, an irresistible blend of almonds and vanilla.  I’d grow it like a shot, but our daughter is certain I would poison our cat, and so oleanders are relegated to memory for me.  They grew all over Rome when I was a girl, usually in shades of rose pink though sometimes, you would see the white, yellow, or gold varieties.  All of them must have been indicums because I remember their scent distinctly; that almond vanilla blend with something else, some people say clove, but I would say peach, in their perfume.

When it comes to scents for Christmas roses you are out of luck.  They have no scent that I’ve been able to detect, and I’ve certainly tried sniffing enough times.  You figure any white flower blooming in the snow must smell like…evergreens, cinnamon, roses?  Nope nothing.  As for oleanders, my best reference has always been Caron’s Farnesiana.  I’ve worn it on and off for years, and no, for the record, do not find the current version a travesty, and yes I know the perfume of old.

More current versions include Ayala Moriel’s Frangipanni Gloves, which is a floral leather, and you don’t see those all that often, and a must for oleander lovers who also adore frangipani. I bet Gerard would go home with the Frangipanni Gloves** for his wife.  Floral leathers were all the rage then- and so was poison.

*Gerard actually cites Black Hellebore as a cure for madness and melancholy, and he’s probably right- insofar as death is a reliable cure-all for whatever ails the living – including life itself.

** Gloves were sometimes poisoned.  This seems a very inefficient way of murdering anyone.

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