Helleborus and its use in medicine

Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, and Helleborus foetidus, the stinking hellebore, both belong to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). 

Their use in cancer therapy began with a statement made by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, pointing to the “anti-tendency” of both mistletoe and Helleborus. These plants do not follow the usual rhythms of nature but bloom or bear fruit in the depths of winter. In this tendency, Rudolf Steiner saw parallels to cancer, where the cells become emancipated from the organism’s regular context and multiply uncontrollably. 

Helleborus niger and Helleborus foetidus are part of the same family, but there are significant differences between them: 

  • Helleborus niger grows close to the ground and has a large, shallow rootstock (rhizome) that is black in color. Hence the name “niger”, the Latin word for black. Usually, only one to three new leaves followed by an equal number of flower stalks grow out of the rhizome every year. The brilliant white flowers open at Christmas time, giving off a faint scent of roses and honey, and are surprisingly frost-resistant.
  • In contrast, Helleborus foetidus boasts a wealth of leaves and flowers and grows in a bushy shape up to 50 cm (20 in) high. The small, bell-shaped flowers are inconspicuously green, like the leaves, but with reddish-brown edges. As the name “stinking hellebore” suggests, their scent is unpleasantly musty. But they are popular with insects nonetheless, especially as the funnel-shaped blossoms offer a warm, safe place on a cold day – yeasts living inside the flowers digest the nectar and give off heat. 

Unlike the Christmas rose, whose pharmacological effects are known from medical history, Helleborus foetidus has been rarely used as a medicinal plant to date. But Rudolf Steiner’s statements have encouraged us to research the effects of both plants more closely, using cell cultures.