In old-fashioned gardens, Helleborus niger, or the Christmas rose, was certainly one of the best known winter flowers, and for 2005 the whole helleborus family was chosen as the Perennial Plant of the Year.
The earliest to flower, H. niger, is native to many parts of Europe, in particular to the sub-alpine woods of Austria and northern Italy, and many varieties are available, some hardy to -30°F. Helleborus niger is so named because its roots are black; the blossoms, however, are pure white. Depending upon the type of winter we have and the variety of helleborus, blooming can begin in December and continue well into late March.
The Heuger Company, under the leadership of Josef Heuger, has bred fabulous earlier blooming H. nigers that have glossy green leaves and offer superior garden performance. The earliest to bloom is H.n. Jacob. It blooms about two weeks earlier than other varieties. It has strong stems and upright blossoms that are far larger and showier. Its tough shiny green foliage allows it to be brought indoors in a cool room for the Christmas season and then be planted out in mild weather after the holiday season.
Helleborus niger Josef Lemper has very large flowers on robust stems, and it too is very showy because of its upward facing blooms. It has superior garden performance and makes a wonderful addition to our winter gardens.
Helleborus plants can be propagated from seed or from divisions; the latter is certainly the fastest way to achieve a blooming plant. Up until a few years ago, finding helleborus was difficult because they usually arrived bare root from Holland and were exceedingly tough to re-root. With the growing interest, and with tissue culture and new seeding techniques, more perennial growers have begun producing them, and they are now quite plentiful. I would recommend that the home gardener purchase only well established plants that have been grown in a container for at least one year.
Helleborus niger, like many other winter-flowering plants, should be placed in a protected spot, next to a house, wall or in front of a protective barrier of evergreens, but always out of cold winter winds. The more protected their location, the earlier and longer they will bloom. They also prefer a semi-shaded site, but it is important that they receive some sun in winter. A location under deciduous trees is ideal, as long as the shade is not too dense. A cool, moist situation is preferred, and deep watering is essential during periods of drought. Any soil in your garden that produces good flowering plants will usually suit helleborus.
Container-grown plants can be set out at any time of the year, but it is wise to prepare a deep planting hole because the roots must stretch down, not outward. It is also important to set the crowns of the plants just below the soil line. Good drainage is essential, as the fleshy roots will not tolerate wet feet, however, they love “humusy” conditions. I have found a mixture of peat, bark mulch and bone meal helpful in the development of new root growth.
Once established, helleborus plants need little care. Although aphids can sometimes be a problem, few other insects bother them. Even slugs tend to shy away from their bitter leaves. They love to be fertilized, and a feeding of 10-15-19 fertilizer in early spring and mid-summer is ideal to help develop a strong root system and plenty of flowers.
You’ll find that most helleborus are rather slow growing perennials. It may take a year or two before they begin flowering in earnest. To get more plants, it is often tempting to divide smaller clumps in half, but you must be careful. No dividing should take place until the plants have at least a dozen or more strong leaves on a good sized clump. The larger the clump grows, the more bountiful the flowers.
I always remember a fresh bouquet of Christmas roses on my grandmother’s hearth each Christmas.
Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.