In spite of its common name, Christmas rose is not a plant that flowers at Christmas in our climate. Additionally, it is not a member of the rose family of plants. However, Christmas rose is a unique perennial plant that provides garden interest year-around. It has a long history steeped in legend and superstition dating back to antiquity. December seems like an appropriate month to explore this plant more thoroughly.
Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a member of the Ranunculaceae plant family and, as such, a close relative of Lenten rose. Both belong to the plant genus Helleborus and are herbaceous perennial plants with leathery, evergreen foliage. The hellebores, as they were commonly called, were popular plants of the ancient Greeks. Roman author and naturalist Pliny wrote about the use of Christmas rose as early as in 1400 B.C.
Ancients used Christmas rose medicinally and considered it to be a potential cure for a number of conditions, including insanity. Paracelsus, a 15th century physician and alchemist, developed an "elixir of life" which included, among other ingredients, components of Christmas Rose. A violent purgative, Christmas rose enjoyed popularity as a medicine from medieval times to the Victorian era because of its ability to purge the human body as well as kill intestinal worms.
Christmas rose's medicinal properties stem from the fact that plant tissues of the hellebores produce several toxic compounds including glycosides (cardiotoxins) and bufadienolides. In fact, the word "hellebore" comes from two Greek words which, together, mean "food to injure". If any part of the plant, including the root, is chewed, symptoms such as excessive drooling, lethargy, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea may develop. Therefore, when used as a medicine in days of old, care had to be taken to make sure the dose was small enough that it would not result in the death of the patient.
In Europe, confusion with its name also exists, since several plants in the genus Veratrum are called hellebores. Ironically, members of this plant genus produce rhizomes which also are highly poisonous. Whenever Christmas (or Lenten) rose is introduced into the landscape, it should be used with caution and an awareness of its potential danger. Fortunately, poisonings today are rare.
In mild climates, Christmas rose flowers in winter, which accounts for its common name. This association with the Yuletide season was emphasized by medieval Nativity plays which presented a story similar to one associated with the poinsettia in later years. The story tells of a young shepherd girl who was tending her family's flock on Christmas eve. After witnessing the events of that night, she eagerly accompanied the other shepherds to visit the Holy Child. Distraught that she had no gift to offer, the girl began to cry. An angel had pity on her led the girl outside where the cherub touched the cold ground. Immediately, a Christmas rose appeared and provided the girl with a gift to offer.
Because of this legend, it was long believed that the Christmas rose was a holy flower with mystical powers. It was often planted close to the entrance of a home in the belief that it would prevent evil spirits that might be passing by from entering the house.
At our latitude, if planted near the foundation of a warm house or in a protected area, Christmas rose might begin flowering during the first warm period of late winter, along with the first spring-blooming bulbs. Most often, however, the flowers of Christmas rose appear in late February or March, whereas Lenten rose flowers about a month later. Additionally, the flowers of Christmas rose are outward-facing and white. In contrast, he flowers of Lenten rose come in many colors including pink, rose and lavender and tend to be more pendulous.
Christmas rose and other hellebores are native to limestone regions of Europe. They do not survive in acid soils. They grow best in deep, fertile soils that remain most, but also are well drained. The soil should be neutral to slightly alkaline, having a pH ranging from 7.0 to 7.4. This means that it usually is necessary to add ground limestone during soil preparation before planting, since most of our native soils tend to be acidic in nature. When adding lime, compost (to improve water retention and porosity) and superphosphate or bone meal should also be incorporated into the soil.
The hellebores prefer a part-shade to shady exposure and protection from drying winter winds. The latter tends to scorch their evergreen foliage turning it brown. Mulch and proper planting location can prevent leaf scorch. Once established, Christmas (and Lenten) rose should be left undisturbed and fertilized only lightly. Often, several years are required for these species to recover from transplanting shock. Once established, however, plants located in suitable conditions have been known to thrive for 50 years.
Although hybrids of Christmas rose exist in commerce, 'Praecox' is the only named cultivar of the species. Admittedly, Christmas rose is not the easiest garden plant to grow in our climate, but it can be strikingly beautiful when success is achieved.
REVISED: December 9, 2019