Even at Christmas time, Christmas roses inspire with their elegant flowers in the bed and pot. Here we present the winter flowering perennial and give important tips on planting and care.
Profile of Christmas rose:
Scientific name: Helleborus niger
Plant family: buttercup family (Ranunculaceae)
Other names: black hellebore
Sowing time: Spring
Planting time: October
Flowering period: December to March
Location: half-shady to shady
Soil quality: sandy to loamy, nutrient rich, humus rich
These information are for temperate climate!
Use in: bouquets, ground cover, group planting, planters, under wood planting, flower garden, natural garden, park area, potted garden, forest garden
Winter hardiness: hardy, USDA Plant Hardiness Zones: 5
Bee and insect friendly: Yes
Plant characteristics and classification of Christmas rose
Plant order, origin and occurrence of Christmas rose
The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is also called black hellebore and delights in winter with its elegant white flowers. Often other Helleborus species are also referred to as Christmas roses, which can lead to all kinds of confusion, as these sometimes bloom at different times. Because of their flowering period around Christmas, Helleborus niger is the only true Christmas rose, other species such as the Helleborus Orientalis hybrids, which bloom in spring, are more commonly referred to as lenten rose or oriental hellebore.
The Christmas rose is a wintergreen, perennial herbaceous plant that belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). The natural distribution area of the wild Christmas rose covers the eastern parts of the Northern and Southern Alps in Europe. The plant is also represented in the Apennines and the Northern Balkans. There it grows at altitudes up to 1900 meters. Christmas roses prefer bushy slopes as a natural location, light beech and mixed beech forests, but they also occur in spruce and oak forests.
The Christmas rose occurs in two subspecies: The more common subspecies is the Helleborus niger subsp. niger. This species is characterized by glossy, dark green leaves. The sections of the leaves are widest in the front third and have teeth curved forward at the leaf edge. There is also the subspecies Helleborus niger subsp. macranthus. This species has matte, blue-green leaves. The sections of the leaves are broadest in the middle and have fine, laterally protruding teeth on the leaf edge.
Characteristics of Christmas rose
The perennial can reach a height of between 10 and 30 centimeters (4 and 12 in) and can live up to 25 years in suitable places in the garden.
Its deep green leaves are divided into seven to nine sections. The individual sections are lanceolate and have an entire or serrated leaf margin. On the lower part of the stem there are two to three frost-sensitive bracts, which must be protected by snow, leaves or earth in winter.
The flower of the Christmas rose reaches a diameter of between 5 and 10 centimeters (2 to 4 in) – it is usually terminally and single on the stem. The white to pink flower, is composed of five egg-shaped sepals. Numerous yellow stamens are arranged in a spiral on the elongated flower axis. The main flowering time of the Christmas rose is from December to March, but it can vary depending on the location, variety and altitude. For example, there are also varieties that show their first blossoms in November and, especially at Christmas time, many plants grown in the pot are available.
Christmas rose – cultivation and care
Christmas roses prefer a half-shady spot and should therefore not grow under conifers or other evergreen plants. A location in the immediate shadow of the building is also not optimal, since Christmas roses form fewer flower buds in full shade. It is best to plant under a deciduous tree or shrub. The plant is not exposed to strong sunlight in the summer months and the fallen leaves form a protective cover in winter. The more open and sunny the location, the more moisture the perennials need. However, too much water is not good for them either: Waterlogging leads to root decay and the plant dies. This can be prevented with a drainage layer made of limestone gravel below the root ball.
The Christmas rose is hardy and thrives in nutrient-rich and humus-rich soils that are neither too dry nor waterlogged. The perennial feels particularly good in an alkaline to neutral location with a high lime content. Poor, sandy soils should therefore be prepared. In autumn, for example, the soil can be improved by adding compost, organic fertilizer or a layer of mulch. In addition to the necessary humus, you should also add a lot of limestone gravel into the soil. With the support of earthworms, the soil is well aerated and contains enough nutrients. Once properly planted and supplied with sufficient organic fertilizer, the plant will thrive for decades. Christmas roses do not have to be transplanted. In the right place they become even more beautiful every year.
Little effort is required to propagate the winter bloomers. In many cases, gardeners almost despair of the strong self-seeding of the plant Not all Christmas rose varieties are varietal. The new plants can have a different flower color than the mother plant. It is rare to find Christmas rose seeds in specialist shops. It is easier to get the seeds from your own plants.
- Do not remove withered inflorescences
- Cut off ripe seed pods
- Carefully separate the fine seeds from the fruit
To prevent the plants from self-seed, you can place a cloth under the immature fruit capsules. When these break open, the seeds fall onto the fabric and can be easily collected. Christmas roses need cold to germ. Only cold temperatures break the inhibition of germs of the seeds and stimulate the budding.
If you want to achieve this in a natural way, you can sow the seeds outdoors immediately after harvesting. The first young plants appear in spring under ideal conditions. If you use this method, you should prepare the bed in autumn.
- clear the area of old roots and plant remains
- loosen the substrate sufficiently and mix with sand if necessary
- place a mark on the spot
The last point is important to distinguish the buttercup family from weeds in spring. Fast growing plants can overgrow the seedlings and cause them to die. Another option: sow the seeds in containers. This way you keep an overview and later move the young plants to their final location.
Poor garden soil is filled into a flat container. Spread the fine seeds over it and only press lightly into the substrate. The soil must not dry out completely, the substrate can be sufficiently moistened with a water sprayer. Protect from heavy rain, this could wash out the seeds. When the seedlings have formed two pairs of leaves, they can be separated.
If you do not have the option of getting a Christmas rose from friends or neighbors, you have to use plants from the specialist market. Depending on the time of year, caution is advised when planting into the garden.
Some plants come from large cultivation facilities and are difficult to cope with outside temperatures. You should relocate plants bought in winter next spring when there is no longer any risk of frost. To prevent discoloration on the foliage, the plants must be protected from sunlight for the first few weeks.
The following tips have proven their worth when planting Christmas roses:
- the planting hole should be twice the depth of the root ball of the plant
- sufficiently loosen the surrounding soil with a spade
- mix the excavated soil with compost
- add sand and clay if necessary
- insert the Christmas rose
- the substrate is filled back to the top of the plant’s root crown
- press the soil firmly and water vigorously
The buttercups are best used in a group planting. The flowering area is a fascinating eye-catcher in the garden in winter. So that the Christmas roses can grow optimally, a minimum distance of 35 cm (14 in) must be kept when planting. This distance is also important when the evergreen perennials are combined with other plants.
Hellebore, as the distinctive buttercup family is called, is perfectly adapted to living in our latitudes. The early flowering plants cope with calcareous irrigation water. As with all evergreen plants, the root ball of Helleborus niger must not dry out completely.
- watering takes place in the early morning and evening hours
- preferably water regularly with small amounts of water
- use the frost-free days in winter
Because of their long roots, Christmas roses in the decorative bed are better able to supply themselves with water from the ground during a long period of drought. Container plants are left behind here. It is advisable to check the top substrate layer during this time. If it feels dry and crumbly, the ideal time has come to add more water.
With bark mulch in the bed, the evaporation rate can be minimized. However, Helleborus niger has no objection to tall plant neighbors who take on this task with their dense canopy of leaves. In order not to stress the Christmas roses unnecessarily in the cold season, you should water with lukewarm water. Waterlogging must not occur.
The evergreen plants are frugal and belong to the light feeder. However, they cannot get by completely without nutrients. This applies especially to container plants. Fertilization takes place between early March and late August. Minerals supplied too late unnecessarily stimulate the Christmas rose to sprout again. Conventional long-term and liquid fertilizers have proven themselves for this task. In the field, passionate gardeners can use compost and horn shavings.
Christmas roses can easily be propagated by root division. This method is simple, the resulting plants bloom earlier than seeded ones. The best time for division is spring. The root ball of older plants is cut into pieces of the same size using a spade or an ax. Place the root parts in the substrate as usual and keep them moist. The first green shoot tips appear after just a few weeks.
Another way of propagation is by sowing, as mentioned above. (see article „Sowing“)
The Christmas rose does not have to be cut into shape, nor is it imperative to remove withered parts of the plant. The latter, however, is an advantage because of the look. It is also not dramatic if some green leaves are cut off. The plant quickly grows new leaves.
When pruning, however, it is important to note a special feature of the Christmas rose. The plant sap can trigger strong skin reactions, such as rashes and inflammation, especially with sensitive people. You must therefore wear appropriate protection, such as gloves. One should then clean all the equipment used and dispose of the cut remains in such a way that no further contact can occur.
Diseases and pests
The most common disease that occurs on Christmas roses is black spot disease. In case of infestation, gray-brown spots form on the upper side of the leaf, larger leaf areas can even die. As a countermeasure, cut off sick plant material and dispose of it in organic waste. The compost is not suitable for disposal, because it can lead to a further spread of harmful pathogens. As a preventive measure, you can also cut off all the foliage before flowering. For this purpose, all old leaves are shortened as deep as possible. This prune is best made as long as the new shoots are not yet five centimeters (2 in) long. The leaves are also disposed of in organic waste.
Black powdery mildew is also often found on the winter perennials: the leaves of the diseased plants change color and start to wither. Heavily infested material should be destroyed immediately, otherwise cutting out is sufficient. Aphids also occasionally appear on the Christmas rose. The pests sit on the underside of the leaves and on the inside of older flowers. The small insects are not a real threat. If you still want to take action against them, you can preventively cut all the withered stalks down to the ground at the end of April. Rarely do snails nibble on the small cotyledons and leaves of the Christmas rose. However, you can effectively protect the perennial with special snail collars.
Hellebore is a winter bloomer. The plant needs cool temperatures to develop the interesting bloom. In the field, Christmas roses have no objection to a warming layer of bark mulch or brushwood. Plants in the bucket run the risk of severe frost completely freezing through the substrate.
You can produce relief with a protective fleece. This is completely wrapped around the planter. The bucket should also be lifted from the ground and therefore be placed on wood to protect it from ground frost. Placing in a cool room is not recommended. The temperatures that the plant needs for its flowers rarely prevail there.
Use in the garden
The perennial appeals best in a group of three to five plants or together with other spring bloomers. Christmas roses fit very well in natural gardens and can be wonderfully combined with early spring bulb flowers such as snowdrops (Galanthus) or winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). Combined with evergreen grasses such as sedge (Carex), they also provide color in the winter months. The combination with white-green variegated varieties is particularly nice here, as they perfectly match the white flowers of the Christmas roses. Incidentally, in terms of soil requirements, the eastern cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) is a perfect planting partner for Christmas roses.
Thanks to new cultivars, specialist retailers have a few varieties of Christmas roses with different flower colors and shapes. A small overview of the most popular hybrid forms:
Helleborus niger ‘Rock’n Roll’
- the plant blooms from January to March
- double pink flowers
Helleborus niger ‘Party Dress Ewalina’
- late flowering variety with white-red dotted flowers
- grows up to 40 cm high (16 in)
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Merlin’
- exceptional cultivation
- the flower color varies in black and blue tones
- can reach a height of up to 60 cm (24 in)
Helleborus niger ssp. macranthus
- a small variety with a growth height of 30 cm (12 in)
- the flowers are pink on the outside and are pure white in the middle