Hellebore – The Christmas Rose

  • Post published:12/22/2008
  • Post comments:1 Comment


photo courtesy of mooseyscountrygarden.com
photo courtesy of mooseyscountrygarden.com


            As a lover of roses, I longed to plant a Christmas rose, although I could not imagine how, in Heath, it would bloom at Christmas. When my garden knowledge grew I realized that while I may be able to plant a Christmas rose and have it bloom, it is no rose, and will probably not bloom for me at Christmas.

            The Christmas rose is, in fact, a member of the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family. Its proper name is Helleborus niger. The word niger or black refers to the root of the plant, not the flower which can be white or a pinkish green. According to my Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia it is hardy to zone 3, which certainly includes Heath, but it is more likely to bloom late here in the fall.

            The first time I saw a hellebore blooming was at the Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston in the early spring.  This was probably the Hellebore orientalis, or Lenten rose. This is listed as hardy to zone 6, and might survive in Heath in a protected location. Where hardy it is considered the easiest hellebore to grow.

            The legend surrounding the Christmas rose is that on the night of the Christ Child’s birth, a little shepherdess  named Madelon was watching her sheep when she saw the Wise Men with their precious gifts hurrying to the stable, and the shepherds also gathering up dried fruits and honey to bring the Babe. She had heard the glorious news, but had no gift at all and wept.  An angel appeared; where Madelon’s tears fell, the angel brushed away the snow to reveal the delicate Christmas rose.

            It is important to know that all the hellebores are very poisonous, leaf and root. They have been used medicinally, but they have also been used on the tips of poison arrows.  Animals understand poisonous plants. You will find hellebores on lists of deer-proof plants.

As a reminder, other dangerous plant poisons come from the nightshade, hemlock and aconite.

Native to Europe, and usually found on sweet soil in the sun, hellebores have proved adaptable to our more acid American soil. They are also happy in the woodland garden. They like a moist soil, but not wet. A poorly drained site will kill a hellebore long before a drought will.

Both the Christmas rose and the Lenten rose are acaulescent, which is to say the flowers have no stem. The flower rises directly out of the soil. Another familiar stemless flower is the autumn crocus or colchicum. 

The evergreen leaves are smooth and dark green. The flowers are actually a modified calyx which means the flowers bloom for up to three months. (Another long blooming flower is the poinsettia whose flower is actually made up of long lasting bracts surrounding a tiny sterile flower that most people barely notice.)

The Lenten rose is different in bloom season, coming in the spring, and the as the flower stalk rises above the flattened leaves, it branches out into a cluster of flowers. The modern hybrids have a vigor that makes them easy to grow.

Over the years many hellebore hybrids have been developed and are available to gardeners through specialty nurseries. Some hybrids have the simple single flower form, but others are many petalled, some are spotted, and the color range has been increased.

There are other hellebores. Hellebore foetidus, the stinking hellebore, only has leaves that will leave a bad smell on your hands. These evergreen leaves are two feet tall with foot long spikes of bell-like green flowers.  This variety is listed as hardy in zones 6 and 7.

Plant Delights (http://www.plantdelights.comis an excellent specialty nursery offering many cultivars of many plants.  If you are a hosta lover, this is a nursery you must visit. They also have a large selection of hellebores, including many hybrids.

It is interesting to me that the excellent Plant Delights catalog and website gives different hardiness information than my Wyman’s.  My book uses the 1971 hardiness map which has been updated several times since then. This is a lesson for all of us, to beware of some of the information in older books, and to pay a lot of attention to the information given by the nurseries where we buy plants. Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights, is one our country’s most respected nurserymen and I put a lot of faith in his catalog listings.

For those who want to see if they can catch a Christmas rose in bloom, Tower Hill Botanic Garden (www.towerhillbg.org), home of the Worcester Horticultural Society, is open Tuesdays through Sundays right through the winter from 10 to 5 PM except for Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.

Tower Hill is a wonderful resource even when we can’t visit.  Every Wednesday from 2-4 PM you can call 508-869-6110, extension 110 to ask questions about plants and gardening. 

With the arrival of the holidays you might want to consider giving a gift membership to the Worcester County Horticultural Society. The cost is $55 for an individual and $70 for a family, providing a newsletter, discounts on programs, in the gift shop and at their plant sales, as well as unlimited free visits to see the hellebores, daffodil hill, wild garden, apple orchard and many other garden delights.   

November 28, 2008





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