Gardeners often despair when the snow flies because they have to wait until spring for flowers, however hellebores are winter-blooming perennials that laugh in the face of winter snows. Helleborus niger (or black helebore) can satisfy the need for something in bloom and growing this perennial cures the blues in an otherwise dreary gardening season. The species name, niger means black and the description refers to the color of the helebore's roots, which are dark or black in color.
Native to Central Asia and the Balkans, the hellebore has a long and interesting history. There are a number of species, however H. niger is reputedly the one that blooms the earliest. Known as the Christmas rose, even though it is in no way related to actual roses, it was the first flower to bloom after the Winter Solstice. Legend has it that the tears of a young girl who had no gift for the Christ Child dropped upon the snow and the angels transformed her tears into the hellebore. Early Christians associated the flower with innocence and believed that it had the power to ward off evil spirits because of this. When the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582, the superstitious people of the British Isles refused to adopt it because hellebores no longer bloomed on Christmas Day, which was January 6th. The Gregorian calendar pushed the date back to December 25th, nearly 2 weeks earlier. It was 1751 before they adopted the new calendar.
The Romans spread the hellebore throughout their empire and while we use it for decorative purposes now, it was an important part of their herbal pharmacy. Roman physicians often prescribed hellebore to treat insanity, epilepsy and drive out demons from the possessed. Magicians also used powdered hellebore to curse farmlands, which was apparently a popular medieval practice among rival farmers. It was also an ingredient in an invisibility potion that supposedly allowed the user to walk about the countryside unseen. Helebore also contains cardiac glycosides which is similar to the chemical make up of Digitalis and was used as a heart medication in the elderly. The powdered root was also compounded into snuff, since it is an irritant that would cause sneezing.
Grow Christmas Rose in Your Own Garden
Growing hellebore today is a great way to add to a cottage garden with an early-blooming plant and while it has some specific needs, once established, hellebores are easy plants that take care of themselves. Plant hellebores in an area where they receive dappled shade and protection from the wind. They like plenty of moisture and slightly alkaline, well-drained soil. They do not do well in boggy conditions. If your soil is too acid, add some lime. Choose their location carefully because hellebores have a long tap root and are difficult to transplant once established. The nodding flowers look best when planted on a hillside or in a raised area, however, they are quite attractive under shrubbery and along a tree line as well. Christmas roses will multiply and naturalize well in these conditions, although odd seedlings may appear. Helleborus niger has a white or pale pink flower, although seedlings with more pink or even greenish sepals are not uncommon. I choose to let the diversity be an asset instead of a hindrance and the occasional green flower is simply extra. Seeds sprout best when they are fresh and not allowed to dry. They also need 3 to 6 weeks of freezing temperatures to properly germinate and take about 3 years to reach maturity. These perennials are evergreen with glossy leaves and grow between 12 and 15 inches tall. Hellebores are hardy in USDA Zones 4 through 8 and should be spaced about a foot apart to allow for spread. Pair them with early blooming spring bulbs like snowdrops, crocus, daffodils and shrubs like flowering quince. In the warmer parts of its growing region, the Christmas rose will probably bloom near Christmas Day, in the colder areas of its range, it could be as much as a month or so later.
Other Hellebore Species
There are other species of Helebores that will add diversity to your garden and Helleborus orientalis is the most common. This species blooms a bit later than the Christmas rose and with their addition you can keep hellebores in bloom in your garden until late spring. They come in numerous colors and even doubles. Helleborus foetidus is another hellebore that is a popular garden plant, however it's species name gives us a hint as to why it shouldn't be planted at eye level. The specific descriptor foetidus means stinking and if sniffed closely, the fragrance does remind one of a skunk. Don't let that dissuade you though, planted in the garden, the scent is hardly noticeable. Their garden requirements are the same, so of the Christmas rose is happy, the others will be as well. Once they are established, they are tough little plants that multiply and reseed with lovely variations. Pair the later blooming species with tulips, narcissus and lilacs.
The Christmas rose and its relatives are a wonderful addition to a perennial garden that needs some winter interest. Their early blooms reaffirm the the truth that spring will come again. Hellebores bloom during the darkest days of the year and brighten up the season. There are a number of vendors that offer the plants by mail order and they will be more than happy to ship them as soon as the weather warms a bit. Plant helebores this spring for their cheerful blooms next winter.