The Fascinating Christmas Rose: Helleborus niger

Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper'
I have scoured the garden literature of the 20th and 21st centuries to bring forth for the holidays some tidbits about Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose.  I did this realizing that it might possibly lead me down one or two or more rabbit holes where securing the keys to escape might involving purchasing a few more old gardening books.

This did indeed turn out to be the case.

If I should be so fortunate as to have the one bud currently on my H. niger bloom in time for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day on the 15th of this month, one or two readers will ask how I got my hellebore to bloom so early because their hellebores bloom later in the spring.  This is probably because they are growing H. orientalis or a hybrid of H. orientalis, which is commonly called the Lenten Rose. It does bloom later in the spring.

According to Alice T. A. Quackenbush, in her book Perennials of Flowerland (The Macmillan Company, 1929) the name hellebore "is derived from helein, to kill, and bora, food" or "food of death". The roots are poisonous. Quackenbush also noted about H. niger, "Probably blooming in any other time, the plant would seem of little garden value: when one remembers that it is possible to dig through snow and find bloom, it becomes precious".

In Our Garden Flowers by Harriet L. Keeler (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910), Keeler notes that another common name for this hellebore is Black Hellebore because the roots of the plant are black. She noted that "any weather which will permit the lowly chickweed to open its corollas to the mid-day sun will bring forth the Christmas Rose".

Last winter, I was reading through Helleborus: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler (Timber Press, 2006) and found mention of a small book, The Christmas Rose, self-published by Arthur E. and Mildred V. Luedy (1948). Yes, I found a good used copy of The Christmas Rose and purchased it.  Luedy wrote, "And there is a flower that strangely loves the bitterness of winter and blooms through the crystal of ice. It is the Christmas Rose, with a history worth telling..."

For what it is worth, Luedy referenced a book, History of Plants by Theophrastus, which was written in the fourth century before Christ and  noted it was "called the most important botanical work of antiquity". I had the good sense to not go looking for that book. That would have been a treacherous, deep, unforgiving rabbit hole.

In Gardens in Winter by Elizabeth Lawrence (1961), Lawrence wrote, "In Scottish Gardens Sir Herbert Maxwell describes it as growing abundantly and luxuriantly in the garden of Carnock at the turn of the century. The purpose of this garden, he said, was "to link season with season and month with month by a succession of blossom. No flower is more important to this scheme than the varieties of Helleborus niger".

I'm sure if anyone has read this far, they may be wondering if they can grow this magical winter flowering hellebore in their garden.

You can grow Helleborus niger if you garden in USDA Hardiness zones 3 - 7, and have a location in light to full shade that is well-drained with good soil. Burrell and Tyler note that "Helleborus niger is slow to mature, so time and patience are needed until your plant reaches full size".  They also note that the bloom time can vary year to year depending on all the usual factors that affect bloom, including weather and age and health of the plant.

If you garden in a warmer climate than zone 7, you may be disappointed that you can't grow this hellebore in your garden.  You may actually be envious of those of us who can experience the magic of flowers sticking up out of the snow. Don't be envious.  Please give us the joy and pleasure of these blooms, and we will not be envious of all that you have blooming throughout your garden during your version of winter.

Or go buy a potted hellebore. They are also becoming a popular potted plant sold around Christmas time.


Anonymous said…
For a less scientific take on the Christmas Rose, here is a link to The Legend of the Christmas Rose by Selma Lagerlöf, a story my Mum used to read to us every year on Christmas Eve.

Hmmmmm Now I am going to have to figure out which ones of mine are the Niger and which are the Lenten Roses. I think most of mine are Lenten Roses since I don't think any bloom at this time. I will have to remedy that situation. Thanks for the interesting informative post. I love it when you drag us down those rabbit holes.
Carol, this was so good and explained so well about the difference between the Christmas and the lenten rose. No wonder you went down such a fascinating rabbit hole.~~Dee
Gail said…
Carol, This is a wonderful read...Loved all the good information and the shared quotes.
Cindy, MCOK said…
Since I'm in zone 9, I can't grow these beauties. I'm glad you have something so lovely to grace your cold & gray winter days!
carolee said…
When I visit my daughter in Germany, I'm always distraught that I can't bring home any of the hundreds of potted hellebores in full bloom that are offered in every grocery & garden center. They are a common, & welcomed hostess gift there.
Ismail N said…
Dear Carol, Thanks very much for sharing this sweet story on hellebore. I am so ignorant - didn't know that a history of plants were written more than 2000 years ago.
Susan in Western NC said…
Then I must have the niger variety because it's blooming right now despite my mother calling it Lenten rose when she gave me the starts. I have photos of it in the snow (in previous years, not thus far this year thank goodness)
NellJean said…
I will not envy your Hellebores nor your lilacs and tulips nor will I bore you with what grows here instead. I'm glad we all have something to plant and tend all year and to display on upcoming Bloom Day.

While you run to E. Lawrence, I prefer her friend William Lanier Hunt and the more contemporary Peter Loewer.
NellJean said…
I will not envy your Hellebores nor your lilacs and tulips nor will I bore you with what grows here instead. I'm glad we all have something to plant and tend all year and to display on upcoming Bloom Day.

While you run to E. Lawrence, I prefer her friend William Lanier Hunt and the more contemporary Peter Loewer.
NellJean said…
There's an echo in here!
Carol said…
NellJean, I just looked at William Lanier Hunt's book on line - Southern Gardens, Southern Gardening, and decided to buy a good used copy because Elizabeth Lawrence wrote the introduction. That makes you an enabler of my garden book buying habit. Welcome to the club.
Anonymous said…
Beautiful bloom for December!
Mario said…
All of my Helleborus bloom in March, but I would like to acquire more plants that bloom much earlier. Thanks for this informative post. It would be cool to have some blooms near Christmas.