by BRIAN MINTER
In the past, Helleborus niger, or the 'Christmas Rose', was certainly one of the best known winter flowers. Native to many parts of Europe, in particular to the sub-alpine woods of Austria and northern Italy, some are hardy to -30°F. Helleborus niger is so named because its roots are black; its blossoms, however, are a wonderful pure white. Depending upon the type of winter we have and the variety of helleborus, it may begin to show blossoms in November and continue to bloom well into late March. Besides the white flowering 'Christmas Rose', a wealth of other great helleborus plants are well suited to our coastal gardens. Helleborus orientalis (the Lenten Rose) is easier to grow and has rose, deep purple and purplish-green flowers that bloom from February through April. The very best foliage variety is 'Helleborus foetidus' with its rich, deep green, leathery foliage and light green flowers edged in purple.
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 a helleborus in local garden centres was like looking for hens’ teeth. With the growing demand, however, more perennial growers have begun producing them in both greater numbers and varieties. In fact we can easily find yellow, black, blue and quite a variety of special blooms, even doubles.
Helleborus, like many other winter-flowering plants, should be placed in a protected spot, next to a chimney or 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 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 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 leaf mold, peat 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 4-10-10 or 10-14-21 in early spring and mid-summer is ideal to help develop a strong root system and plenty of flowers.
You'll find that the ‘Christmas Rose’ is a rather slow growing perennial. It may take a year or two before it begins 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 size 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. They are certainly a special treat. If you can find the right protected location, plant them now. And remember, they also make wonderful Christmas gifts!