(Species: Helleborus Niger - Family: Ranunculaceae)
Hellebore and its origins
This ancient and hugely popular perennial flower is known as the Christmas rose because, according to folklore, it sprung up in the snow from the tears of a maiden who had no gift for the baby Jesus. If you're lucky, it will bloom on December 25 - though usually flowers a month or two later.
Helleborus Niger grows wild in many mountainous areas of Europe. It's easy, however, to find it as a young plant in garden centre or plant nursery during wintertime.
Seasonality: Helleborus Niger in flower
Grow the Christmas rose for its simple, charming beauty, and because it blooms when little else does, though not always as abundantly as its many fans would like. The plant forms clumps over time and the leathery, deeply-cut leaves remain deep green through winter. The large, flattish white flowers with palest green centres and showy golden stamens appear in winter and last until early spring. The Christmas rose grows no taller than 30cm.
Cultivar Potter's Wheel has especially large flowers and is worth seeking out, as are double-flowered selections and dusty pink forms. Some or all of the foliage might need to be cut away to display the flowers, which last well when cut and used indoors: they look especially pretty when the flowerheads float in a wide bowl of water, so they are clearly visible.
How to plant Helleborus Niger
Not the easiest flower to grow well, Hellebore Niger, thrives in moist, humus-rich alkaline soil, in partial shade. Obviously, as it is a winter-bloomer, it is reliably hardy and needs no cosseting through cold snaps or when frost threatens.
For best results, especially if your soil is acidic, and is either light sand or heavy clay, add plenty of leaf-mould or garden compost, dug in as a soil improver. Regular applications of leafmould or compost will also further improve the conditions pre-sowing.
A good place to grow Helleborus Niger is beneath the canopy of deciduous trees or next to an evergreen shrub, where it will look - and feel - at home, but you need to water through dry periods.Sadly, slugs and snails enjoy eating the Christmas Rose, so it pays to be vigilant during spring, when they emerge to do damage.
Propagation of Helleborus niger
You can divide overcrowded clumps of Helleborus Niger in spring after blooming, but once disturbed, they are slow to recover and flower once more, so you need to be patient. The plant is hard to grow from seed, so it is best to simply buy another plant when it is in bloom, so you know exactly what type of Christmas rose you are getting, because cultivated hellebores vary greatly from one to another.
Did you know
Helleborus Niger has traditionally been used in herbal medicine to drive away melancholy. In the Middle Ages, people used the flowers to ward off evil influences. This may have related to the fact that all parts of hellebore are poisonous.