Lore of the Christmas Rose
COMMON NAME: Christmas Rose
Species, Hybrids, Cultivars:
H. niger “Angustifolius”-small flowering, pure white form. H.n. “Praecox”-blooms September-February. H.n. “Major,” H.n. “Multiflorus”-smaller flowers.
DESCRIPTION: This plant, which grows to a height of 12 to 8 inches, has interesting evergreen leaves that are slightly toothed and divided into seven to nine leaflets. The large white flowers are 2 inches or more across, with bright yellow stamens in the center. The blossoms turn pink or purplish as they age.
CULTIVATION: Christmas roses prefer sandy, neutral soil rich in humus. They do best with a bit of winter chill, and they need heavy mulch to protect them from the summer heat. Protection from winter storms and severe weather will also benefit the plants. Winter sun, summer shade, and ample moisture throughout the year are the perfect conditions for the Christmas rose. Plants can be divided in late summer, or after flowering, and planted immediately. Plant new plants in fall or spring, approximately 18 inches apart. It will take a year or so for these plants to get established and bloom well. Established clumps should be treated with a top dressing of compost or liquid fertilizer in February. Although the Christmas roses have a reputation for bringing somewhat introverted and wanting to be left alone, garden writer Vita Sackville-West contends that this reputation is not “wholly deserved: If the plant is dug with a large ball of soil, it will transplant quite easily.”
Christmas rose, also commonly known as hellebore, provides a delightful bit of spirit for the winter garden and deserves the attention it gets due to the lack of competition.
For many centuries, the Christmas rose was thought to possess powerful magical and medicinal properties. In Greek mythology, it was used by the physician Melampus to cure the mad daughters of Proteus, god of the sea. Because of the legend, the plant was often used to treat the insane. Epictetus, a second-century Greek writer, said that the more deluded a man was, the more hellebore he would need. John Gerard, an author of 1597 herbal, wrote that hellebore was “good for mad and furious men.”
The hellebores gained such a reputation for being magical that they were often used to purify houses and drive out evil spirits. The flower is often used as a symbol of purity. According to legend, the Christmas rose grew in the garden in heaven and was tended by the angels, who called it the rose of love. In Holland, it is known as Christ’s herb because it so often blooms at Christmas time. An anonymous poem aptly describes the character of this small flower:
… this winter rose
Blossoms amid the snows,
A symbol of God’s promise cares and love.
Perhaps the best-known legend about the Christmas rose is of Madelon, a small shepherd girl who came to Bethlehem on the night that Christ was born. She had come to see the miracle of his birth but had no gift for the Christ child. Sad and lonely, she stood outside the manger and began to cry. God looked down from heaven and saw her tears and took pity on this small girl with empty hands but a heart full of love. He sent the angel Gabriel to her. Gabriel touched the earth around her, and suddenly, through the frozen ground, there appeared dozens of the small white flowers that today we call Christmas rose. Madelon happily picked an armful of the blossoms and laid them in the manger.
The genus name, Helleborus, sheds a different light on the character of the little Christmas rose. The name is from two Greek words, helein, meaning “to kill,” and bora, meaning “food.” This name was given to the hellebores because the roots are poisonous Even the bruised leaves give off a toxic substance, so handle the plant carefully. The species name niger was given because the root of this plant is black.
A closely related species is the Lenten rose, H. orientalis. It blooms somewhat later in the season, in March and April, and has blossomed colors that range from green to white and many shades of pink and purple. It grows to a height of about 18 inches, and its cultural requirements are similar to those of the Christmas rose. Both the Christmas and the Lenten rose are native to limestone areas of Europe and Asia.
Sheila MacQueen, the grande dame of English flower arranging, considers the Christmas rose a “necessity for both garden and flower arrangers.” She suggests that you force Christmas rose under a pane of glass to assure blossoms by Christmas. An arrangement of variegated holly, yellow jasmine, and flowers from the Christmas rose, she says, makes a perfect table arrangement for the holidays.
Both the Christmas and the Lenten rose will last longer indoors if their stems are conditioned when cut. Either hammer the ends of the stems or dip the ends into boiling water for thirty seconds and then allow them to stand in deep water for 12 hours.
The seed heads are also attractive in arrangements. Pick them after the seeds have formed, and put them in a warm spot in the water.