Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Winter Gardening: Helleborus Niger, The Christmas Rose

And she was fair as is the rose in May. – Geoffrey Chaucer 

Helleborus Niger. Photo: Tie Guy II, Flickr ccl
It certainly doesn’t seem like winter here in Nova Scotia. The weather has been unseasonably warm to put it mildly (pardon the pun…). But we do have our moments. It’s snowing large flakes as I write this post.

Photo: Drew Avery, Flickr ccl
It also doesn’t help our longings for Spring that the plant and seed catalogues have started to arrive either. So what does one do except crack open their colourful pages and dream of weather (soon coming) when our gardens burst into glory.

I always look for those flowers that make the earliest appearance. In my mind the sooner winter is over the better. One of the earliest is the Christmas Rose, otherwise known as Helleborus Niger. It’s available as plants from catalogues and online as well as at certain local garden centres (when they open for the season).

Hellebores comprise around 20 species of herbaceous perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae. Buttercups are in that same family and some resemblance can be seen. Contrary to the common name, the Christmas rose is in no way related to roses.

See, it does bloom in winter! Photo: Tie Guy II

Photo: Nemo's great uncle, Flickr ccl
Hellebores grow wild in much of Europe, from Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, through to Romania and Ukraine and into the Caucasus. The greatest concentration of the species is in the Balkans. In the wild, the Christmas Rose (specifically) is found in mountainous areas, over a range from Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. 

The Christmas Rose is an evergreen plant with dark, leathery leaves carried on stems up to 12 inches (30 cm) tall. It bears large flowers on short stems from midwinter to early spring although I have never seen one bloom in winter in my back yard… Spring yes; winter no.

Our neighbours grow Eranthis (also called Winter Aconite) that break the frozen soil and bloom before the snow has melted. In ideal conditions Hellebores would bloom alongside them around the same time.

The flowers are usually white and sometimes tinged pink as they age. There are also many cultivars available, one of which has spots and another a deep pink. H. Niger are quite hardy as well, being able to withstand USDA Zone 4 or slightly colder.

Photo: M. Oefelein, Flickr ccl
It can be a bit of a trial to find the perfect spot for planting a Helleborus but it’s worth it. Moist, humus-rich, alkaline soil in dappled shade is preferable. Acidic soil is a plant killer. Dead leaves can be dug in to improve less than optimal soil;  and lime can be added to 'sweeten' acid soils. So it’s not really that difficult to give this plant the conditions to allow it to thrive.

Helleborus Niger will reward your efforts by increasing in size and number of blooms. Add to that one of the earliest bloomers after winter’s dreariness and you’ve got a plant well worth seeking out.


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