Helleborus (Christmas rose) steals the show

The common name of this perennial is Christmas rose. This is fully justified, as the plant begins flowering around Christmas time. When most plants in the garden are dormant, this richly flowering plant plays a leading role with its glorious flowers.

Helleborus belongs to the Ranunculaceae family. In the past it was grown for medicinal purposes. One of its uses was as a sneezing powder, which was obtained by grinding up the dried roots.

The Greeks also used this powder as a remedy for insanity and epilepsy. As with most plants that are used for medicinal purposes, the roots and sap of Helleborus contain toxic substances. The plant should therefore be treated with caution if you have small children who tend to put things in their mouths. The consequences are not usually very drastic, but the plant may cause an upset stomach or an unpleasant intestinal complaint.

Eye-catching feature in the winter garden
Nowadays Helleborus is rarely used as a medicine. It is more popular for its eye-catching appearance and uncommon flowering time. As soon as the cold winter weather has persuaded most plants to take a winter nap, this self-willed perennial steals the show with its surprising flowers. With some care and attention and a bit of help from Mother Mature, it will flower at the end of December.

The red and white Christmas roses are ideal for creating a festive atmosphere – even though the latest trend is to use all kinds of colours in Christmas decorations! The other Helleborus shades are also useful for introducing colour to the winter garden. The origin of the name Christmas rose may be obvious, but this plant bears no relation at all to the rose, although the striking flowers are very characteristic and elegant. After the festive season, these plants may continue to flower until the arrival of spring.

Family and classification
In the wild the Christmas rose can be found on the slopes of the north-eastern and south-eastern Alps. It belongs to the Ranunculaceae family (Ranunculus) and reaches a height of approximately thirty centimetres. According to the latest registered data, the genus comprises fifteen species, six hybrids, several subspecies and many cultivars.

On the basis of its growth habit, Helleborus can be divided into two groups. The first group is the caulescent group (having a well-developed stem above ground), which includes H. Foetidus (Stinking Hellebore) and H. Argutifolius (Corsican Hellebore). The flowers of these varieties develop at the top of the leaf stalks. The second group is the acaulescent group (stemless or apparently stemless), whose flowers form on separate stems. Species in this group include H. Niger (Christmas rose) and H. Orientalis (Lenten rose).

Orientalis is the collective name for a group of Helleborus propagated from seed. The flowers are often spotted and the colours vary. Pink and purple flowers mixed with red and white form a stunning combination!

If you are looking for a plant to use in a traditional Christmas decoration, I can highly recommend H. Orientalis ‘Queen of Night’, with its dark red flowers.

Some H. Orientalis cultivars flower slightly later in January, and are a valuable asset in the winter garden.

The best known Helleborus is probably H. Niger. It may have struck your attention that this is rather a strange name for the white Christmas rose, as Niger means black. This is because the name does not refer to the lovely flowers but to the black tap root.

Undemanding plant
Generally speaking Helleborus is an undemanding plant. All it needs is a sheltered spot, sun or partial shade, and fertile soil that is not too wet. Christmas roses look spectacular planted between shrubs in a semi-shaded site. These magnificent plants can really brighten up a dull border in winter.

Helleborus can still be planted in December as long as the weather is not freezing. In my view the final touches are often the most impressive of all. So surprise yourself and fill that empty spot in your garden with a Helleborus. You will not regret it!

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