The many different common names for hellebores, such as Christmas Rose, Snow Rose, Lenten Rose or Oracle Flower, indicate that the genus has a long mythological tradition. The names are based either on scientific phenomena (German "Nieswurz" (sneezewort)) or several centuries of tradition (Oracle Flower, Christmas Rose).
"Nieswurz" in German (“sneezewort”):
A very popular German name for hellebore is "Nieswurz", meaning "sneezewort" in English. The name comes from the fact that any part of the Helleborus plant induces sneezing if ground to a fine powder and sniffed. The mucosal irritation is caused by the protoanemonine that is contained in hellebores. In earlier times, this phenomenon was used to sneeze off evil spirits and diseases. Hellebores were also used in snuff tobacco blends. However, since the leaves and roots are toxic we explicitly and strongly discourage using hellebore plants or any of their parts for any other purpose than decoration or decorative gardening!
The following story explains the origin of the name of Christmas Rose: A poor shepherd travelled to Bethlehem. Since he did not have a present to give to the baby Jesus and, as it was the cold season, did not find any flowers by the wayside, he wept bitterly. However, as his tears touched the soil, flowers as beautiful as roses – hellebores – sprung from the ground. Overwhelmed with joy, the shepherd took these "Christ-mas Roses" and gave them to the Child of Christ as a present.
In earlier times, hellebores were used to forecast the weather for the following year, which is why they were called Oracle Roses. Mainly in the countryside, there was a tradition of putting twelve hellebore flower buds in a glass of water before Christmas, each of them representing one month of the following year. If the bud opened to a flower, the weather was predicted to be good for that particular month. If it did not open, poor weather was to be expected.
Use from ancient times to the present day:
The Christmas Rose was known even in ancient times and used for medicinal purposes. Hippocrates administered Helleborus as a laxative and diuretic. Helleborus was also considered to be a remedy against mental illness.
In the the Middle Ages, the Christmas Rose was used as an ingredient in witches' ointments and considered to be an elixir for eternal youth. Ground to a fine powder, it was even claimed to make people invisible.
Because all parts of the plant are toxic, treating people with hellebore was not without risk.
Today, only the roots of Helleborus niger are used in human medicine to treat cardiovascular problems. The primary ingredient is hellebrin, which is contained in the roots.