Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kill or cure!

click photo to enlarge
It's January and Helleborus orientalis, the hellebore, is in full bloom under a large willow tree by the stream in my garden. Now I know that aspirin originally came from a chemical in the bark of the willow, but I only recently discovered that hellebores were once considered a great cure for worms in children. Though since it tended to kill more people than it cured I wonder why its efficacy wasn't challenged sooner!

In fact, hellebore was considered to be a purgative by Hippocrates, so its medicinal use is of long standing. Some believe it caused the death of Alexander the Great when he took it as a medicine. In 585BC the Greeks, in the siege of Kirrha, used hellebore to poison the city's water supply. The defenders weren't killed, but they were so weakened by diarrhoea that they were unable to resist the final onslaught. In medieval times people believed witches used the plant to summon demons, and over the years its ingestion has been thought to cause tinnitus, vertigo, swelling of the tongue and throat, slowing of the pulse and death by cardiac arrest. So this is a plant that requires careful handling, and one that should never pass your lips.

Discovering all this I now look at the subdued flowers of the plant with fresh eyes. I imagine it resting on a Victorian coffin in a glass-sided hearse, pulled by jet black horses with nodding plumes, led by a black clad undertaker in a top hat, under a leaden sky! Or is that a bit fanciful? Whatever the case, the history of the hellebore certainly caused me to use a black background when I photographed it, and I chose the shots made with the natural light of an overcast day rather than the more upbeat versions I took using bounced flash!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 35mm macro (70mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f16
Shutter Speed: 1.0
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0EV
Image Stabilisation: Off