Christmas Rose: The Perfect Hellebore
In the rush to seek out the newest and rarest hellebores on the market, I am afraid that gardeners are neglecting to explore fully the wonderful qualities of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger. Christmas rose is a species hellebore no garden should be without. In addition, recently introduced cultivars have made this species a must have for gardeners seeking fall and winter interest.
Christmas roses have been in cultivation for hundreds of years and are a very distinctive species hellebore with little variation in the wild. They are native to woodlands and open areas of the central and eastern Alps in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and northern Italy. They are about 9 to 12″ in height with a very woody root system. The smooth, leathery dark blue-green leaves are deeply divided into 7 to 9 leaflets with irregular teeth around the tip. If covered with snow, the leaves will stay pristine through the winter.
Christmas roses have pure white flowers on upright fleshy stems. The full, rounded blossoms are outward-facing and open flat with a width of 2 to 5″ and a bloom time starting anywhere from November to March, depending on the cultivar. The flowers often age to shades of pink to red. They make a very good cut flower.
Christmas roses prefer a well-drained site rich in organic matter. High or dappled shade is best, and they seem to prefer the edge of beds. Although they don’t like to be moved, they are easy to divide because their leaves and flowers are on separate stems. Once they are established, all they need is a yearly mulch of ground leaves. Christmas roses are usually found in areas with alkaline soil and several sources recommend applying lime, but I have never found this necessary.
There are several cultivars of Christmas rose that have enhanced the ornamental qualities of this already desirable hellebore. The straight species blooms in the mid-Atlantic area of the U.S. in early March, after the hybrid hellebores, Helleborus x hybridus. The Christmas rose cultivar ‘Praecox’ moves the start of bloom time up from March to mid to late January. ‘Praecox’ also produces an abundance of flowers at a young age unlike the straight species, which can take a while to establish itself.
Two more recent introductions from the Helleborus Gold Collection in Germany have moved the start of Christmas rose’s bloom time to November and extended it to May. ‘HGC Jacob’ begins blooming in my garden in mid-November, while ‘HGC Josef Lemper’ begins around December 1. Both cultivars continue blooming into May. For detailed descriptions of ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’, read my article Hellebores for Fall by clicking here.
Although rarely for sale, I treasure my ‘Potter’s Wheel’ Christmas rose, a cultivar with huge flat, 5″ wide symmetrical flowers. Although most ‘Potter’s Wheel’ is not true to type because it is seed grown, I acquired mine from Arrowhead Alpines, which vegetatively propagates their plants from the original ‘Potter’s Wheel’ in England.
I hope that you will consider Christmas rose the next time you add to your hellebore collection.
Please let me know in a comment/reply about your own experiences with growing Christmas roses.
This is part of a series of articles on hellebores, one of the specialties of my nursery. Here are links to the other articles:
Part One Hellebores for Fall
Part Two An Ode to Seed Strain Hellebores
Part Three Christmas Rose: The Perfect Hellebore
Part Four Dividing Hybrid Hellebores
Part Five The Sex Lives of Hellebores
Part Six Double Hellebores
Part Seven Cutting Back Hellebores
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Nursery Happenings: I am currently accepting orders for snowdrops, including mail orders. For the catalogue and order information, click here. I am taking reservations for my March 18 & 19 Hellebore Seminars. For the brochure and registration information, click here. I have a few spaces left for Charles Cresson’s Snowdrops and Other Winter Interest Plants Seminars. For the brochure and registration information, click here.