Monday, 1 February 2010

The Wild Plants of France 4 - The Stinking Hellebore - Helleborus foetidus

French- Ellebore, Pied de Griffon, Herbe à Sétons

From the beginning of the year, the stinking hellebore has been flowering in the woods and waysides of the limestone districts of France. It is not recorded from Brittany or Les Landes in Aquitaine. In Britain it exists sporadically in some limestone districts (e.g. Gloucestershire) and is declining. It is the earliest of flowers, but overlooked because it is not colourful and the flowers are lost among the other green of the plants of the waysides. They stand tall but do not attract attention. Its relative, the green hellebore is even more rare. But both are scattered throughout most of France where the flora is undisturbed.
The common culture of the middle ages across Europe is echoed in common plant names. Through them one can trace this culture back even to the Romans and Greeks. The French name of ‘herbe à sétons’ is reflected in the dialect names in England of setterwort and also oxheal. A séton (from the Latin seta- a thread- is a thread or bandage passed under a bridge of skin, lifting it and helping to relieve a festering sore. When a cow or bullock had an infection in the throat, a length of the black root of hellebore was inserted into the loose skin flap, the dewlap, below the throat. The herbal medicine passed into the blood and stimulated the flow of the phlegm. The name ‘setterwort’ takes the veterinary use of séton, no doubt via the Norman-French as disseminated by the monks, combining it with the Anglos-Saxon wort –weed.
All hellebores are toxic plants, but have been in medical use since early times. Quantities of the roots of the green hellebore were taken to the London hospitals in the 18th century. The word ‘hellebore’ used for several unrelated plants is originally ancient Greek signifying ‘dangerous food’. The Christmas rose is another species of the same genus. All have divided leaves much in the form of a heavily splayed foot or otherwise a set of claws, which gives them the alternative names of Bearsfoot in England and Pied de Griffon in France.
They are related to buttercups. A species whose structure is halfway between the two is the kingcup which has yellow flowers, but also carries capsular fruits similar to those of the hellebores. The custom in Nature, which is more common than you might think, is that ants distribute the seeds. These carry a large white oily growth which ants like to eat. Ants pick up the seeds, eat the oil body and leave the seed at some distance. But not only do ants do this. It is written that snails and slugs also are attracted to the oil and they get the seed stuck to their slimy skin and so also carry the seeds away.
As they flower in the winter, one wonders how they get pollinated. But in the warm afternoons in winter there are some insects about. Though books say it is bees which drink at these flowers, my guess is that it is the flies which come for the copious nectar. The nectaries are huge. They are in origin modified petals which have lost all pretence to be colourful and are converted to these large green cups of nectar. They look like medieval drinking horns and are at least half the size of the stamens around which they are clustered. The insects which drink are either immune to the plant’s toxins or the nectar does not contain them! It is the green outer sepals which at first sight you might suppose are the petals. In the Christmas or Lenten Rose (Helleborus niger) the same sepals are coloured and look exactly like petals. In the stinking hellebore they each have a purple rim. These colours and the fusty pong of the flowers might well attract flies. The green colour would help the production of sugar in the pale winter sunshine, and the purple rim might absorb some warmth. By mid-January some flowers have already set their seed. One could wish for a more attractive plant as a harbinger of Spring than the stinking hellebore!