Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger)

Black Hellebore, Christmas Rose, Easter Rose, Hellebore, Lenten Rose

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a flowering evergreen perennial plant that is often grown in ornamental gardens because it flowers in the winter. Planting christmas rose is particularly common in cottage garden styles. In the wild, christmas rose grows in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Croatia. This plant is considered somewhat difficult to grow and requires moist, alkaline-rich soil.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Helleborus niger, commonly called Christmas rose or black hellebore, is an evergreen perennial flowering plant in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae. It is poisonous.

Although the flowers resemble wild roses (and despite its common name), Christmas rose does not belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).

Helleborus niger is an evergreen plant with dark leathery pedate leaves carried on stems 9–12 in (23–30 cm) tall. The large flat flowers, borne on short stems from midwinter to early spring, are generally white, but occasionally with a pink tinge. The tips of the petals may be flushed pink or green, and there is a prominent central boss of yellow.

The black hellebore was described by Carl Linnaeus in volume one of his Species Plantarum in 1753. The Latin specific name niger (black) may refer to the colour of the roots. There are two subspecies: H. niger subsp. niger and H. niger subsp. macranthus, which has larger flowers (up to 3.75 in/9 cm across). In the wild, H. niger subsp. niger is generally found in mountainous areas in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. Helleborus niger subsp. macranthus is found only in northern Italy and possibly adjoining parts of Slovenia.

The plant is a traditional cottage garden favourite because it flowers in the depths of winter. Large-flowered cultivars are available, as are pink-flowered and double-flowered selections. It has been awarded an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) H4 (hardy throughout the British Isles) by the Royal Horticultural Society, as has one of its hybrids (see below).

It can be difficult to grow well; acidic soil is unsuitable, as are poor, dry conditions and full sun. Moist, humus-rich, alkaline soil in dappled shade is preferable. Leaf-mould can be dug in to improve heavy clay or light sandy soils; lime can be added to ‘sweeten’ acid soils.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

If Christmas rose gets too much sun in summer, its leaves will turn brown. But this plant likes full sun during its blooming period: in winter. If you grow it under a deciduous tree, you will get the best of both worlds (summer shade and winter sun), since deciduous trees shed their leaves in fall.

Temperature and Humidity

Christmas rose is a hardy plant. However, at the northern end of its range, Christmas rose can profit from mulching for the winter to protect it from drying winds. It tolerates a range of humidity levels.

Watering

Christmas rose prefer a moist environment. For seedlings, keep the soil moist in spring and summer. plants that have been growing for many years are more drought tolerant, and can be watered when the topsoil is dry. Christmas rose will be dormant in mid-summer, so water only to prevent soil from drying out. Pay special attention to drainage when it is rainy, as Christmas rose do not tolerate waterlogging. Another tip is to water the soil (rather than the plant) in order to prevent pests and diseases.

Soil

Fertile, well-drained sandy soil is optimal for Christmas rose. The appropriate soil pH is 6.5-7.5: more or less neutral. It can survive in poor soil, but adequate nutrients promote growth and bloom. If the soil is poor, improve it by mixing in potting soils or organic fertilizers.

Fertilizing

If the soil is already mixed with organic or slow-release fertilizer at planting, no additional fertilizer is needed in the spring. The application of organic or slow-release fertilizers once a year in later summer is good enough. If the soil is somewhat infertile or the plants are getting larger, a low-concentration fertilizer can be applied once in spring (N-P-K = 10-10-10). Fertilizers that are rich in nitrogen will suppress flowering. Avoid fertilizers during flowering or within 2 weeks after division, or the flowers may fall off.

Planting Instructions

You can buy christmas rose seedlings for your garden. Transplant in mid-fall, and mist the soil if it is dry. Since the roots of christmas rose grow primarily downward and are not hardy, choose a location carefully to avoid transplanting later again. Avoid dry and windy places. In addition, as it is a slow-growing plant that takes 3-5 years to grow and flower, do not plant other fast-growing plants nearby that could invade and occupy the growing space of the Christmas rose.

If you transplant a Christmas rose to a pot, choose a deep pot and place a layer of small stones on the bottom to help drain water. Make sure it is well-ventilated to prevent yellowing of the leaves, pests, and diseases. Do not forget to wear gloves during transplanting, as all parts of christmas rose are toxic.

You can also sow Christmas rose from seed, although seeds often take up to a year to emerge. Sow 2-3 seeds every 40 cm on the topsoil in your garden, and cover with a thin layer of soil. Keep the soil moist (but not waterlogged) after sowing. Don’t forget to mark the area you sow the seeds!

Pruning

The older leaves on Christmas rose will eventually become tattered. The best time to remove them is when new growth begins to emerge. These fresh leaves will come up between the older leaves. Cut the stems of the tattered foliage close to the base of the clump.

Propagation

Division 

There are two ways to propagate Christmas rose: by division and by seed. It does not require division to keep it vigorous, but you can divide this perennial in late winter or early spring to propagate it.

  • Using a spade, dig your Christmas rose out of the ground.
  • Pour water over the rootball to wash off the soil, so you can see what you’re working with. What you’re looking for are buds on the crown.
  • Before dividing, be sure that each division will bear at least two buds. 
  • Once you have determined where to make your cut, do so with a sharp knife.

From Seed

You can also grow Christmas rose from seed. The easiest way to do so is to collect the seeds produced by your plant as soon as you see them. Plant them in outdoor containers right away and keep their soil moist. Germination can occur as early as that fall. After germination, you can either leave them in the container or transplant them into the garden.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

The main pests that eat Christmas rose are aphids and slugs. Inspect the undersides of the leaves for aphids; if you find any, spray with Neem oil. Slugs are easier to detect but also do more damage. There are methods for slug control that rely only on products found around the home, thereby keeping pest-control costs down. Luckily, the plant is resistant to deer damage.

The main diseases that infest Christmas rose are crown rot and leaf spot. Avoid crown rot by making sure, at planting time, that the crown of Christmas rose rests at or slightly above ground level.

Leaf spot is the less serious of the two diseases. Avoid:

  • Overhead watering
  • Watering in the evening

Common Problems 

For the most part, Christmas rose’s problems are related to moisture. Since you will be growing Christmas rose in the shade, there will not be enough sun to dry out the soil readily. This is why moisture-loving slugs can be a problem.

Moisture is also a contributing factor to crown rot and leaf spot. But these common problems with Christmas rose are easily addressed through proper cultural practices.

Potting and Repotting 

Since Christmas rose requires good drainage, begin by placing a layer of coarse gravel (small stones) in the bottom of your container.

  • On top of this, apply a potting mix.
  • Fill the pot with the potting mix to within one inch of the top.
  • Dig a hole for your plant. When you plant the Christmas rose, make sure the crown is not buried (to avoid crown rot).
  • Tamp down the soil lightly around the crown and water well.
  • Keep the soil evenly moist but not waterlogged.

Overwintering 

Cold-hardy to zone 3, it is still best, at the northern end of its range, to mulch Christmas rose for winter protection for the roots. The drying winds of winter will not kill the plant, but they may turn the leaves brown, spoiling the plant’s appearance temporarily.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Christmas rose is a real asset to the gardener looking for floral color in winter. It is a plant that tolerates shade well, so it can also be used in wooded areas or underneath trees. Since the plant spreads out over time, it can be used for an attractive ground cover. It is a very traditional garden plant, especially in the UK, and while it can be challenging to make it thrive, many people attempt to keep the christmas rose. Hostas, Coral bells, and Columbines are good complementary plantings, especially since they will all bloom at different times.

IV. Harvesting and Storage

Collect seeds in early summer when the fruit has turned brown, mature, dry, and hard. Wear gloves to avoid skin irritation when collecting the seeds. You can also collect seeds by covering the flowers with a paper bag while the fruit is still green, and waiting for the fruit to ripen and crack. Christmas rose seeds are best sown right after harvesting, so they’ll be ready to sprout late that winter.

The lifespan of cut christmas rose flowers is related to the variety. Usually flowers of light-colored varieties only last 1-2 days after harvesting, while some dark purple varieties can last up to a week. Cut at the middle or bottom of the flower stem to keep some scape. It’s best to cut the flowers in the early morning after the flowers fully bloom.

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) Details

Common name Black Hellebore, Christmas Rose, Easter Rose, Hellebore, Lenten Rose
Botanical name Helleborus niger
Plant type Herbaceous Perennial
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Slow
Height 0 ft. 9 in. - 1 ft. 0 in.
Width 0 ft. 9 in. - 1 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color Pink
Leaf color Green