While other plants hibernate, the Christmas rose blossoms. Here you will learn all you need to know about the origins of Christmas roses and the many varieties.
Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is one of the most popular Christmas plants and enchants us in the depths of winter with its beautiful flowers. Black hellebore, as it is also called, belongs to the Ranunculaceae family. The perennial is especially known for its early flowering time and is therefore wonderful for decorating house entrances or balcony boxes in the dreary winter months because it opens its flowers just when many other flowers are in winter dormancy. So if you do not have a Christmas rose yet, you should consider getting this hardy and low-maintenance ornamental perennial in your garden or on your balcony now at the latest.
Answers to some interesting questions – such as whether Christmas roses are poisonous and where they actually originate – can be found in this article. We also present the most beautiful Christmas rose varieties and explain what you need to note when planting, caring for and propagating black hellebore.
Christmas roses: origin and significance
Perhaps you have seen wild Christmas roses growing wild. This would not be unusual, as some Helleborus– species are also common in Europe. However, the ancestors of today’s Christmas roses originally come from Southeast Asia, from where they spread westward along the shores of the ancient Mediterranean after the peak of the last ice age (about 20,000 years ago). Due to the constant temperature changes during this time, they probably developed their ability to postpone and even interrupt the growth and flowering period.
The species best known to us, Helleborus niger, is widespread in the German-speaking area as well as in Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy, where it likes to colonise bushy and sparse forests. It is even found at altitudes of up to 1900 metres. Since in many places there are hardly any wild specimens left, Christmas roses are especially protected under the Federal Species Protection Ordinance. Fortunately, however, they have long been cultivated in monastery gardens and cottage gardens, so that today you can also can buy cultivated varieties for your garden or balcony.
Helleborus niger is known by many different names. The litreal translation of the botanical name is “black hellebore”, because the crushed, black roots were once used by rogues as sneesing powder. However, as Christmas roses are poisonous, these fun actions could sometimes even end fatally – before an imitation is therefore strongly discouraged. The name “Christmas rose” is due to the tradition of cultivating them so that they bloom on Christmas, around the day of the birth of Jesus. In Austria, the names “Schneerose” (snow rose) or “Schneebleamal” (i.e. “little snow flower”) are most common, because in some areas it already blooms when there is still snow.
Christmas roses have long symbolised the release of fear, and even the ancient Greeks knew about the healing characteristics of the plant. However, its phytotherapeutic characteristics are currently only used in homeopathy and today, the Christmas rose is more appreciated in gardens and floristry. The white flowers of the Christmas roses represent hope and innocence. There are also some poems about the winter queen among flowers.
Do Christmas roses bloom in the summer?
The flowers of Christmas roses open when many other plants are in winter dormancy, because Christmas roses need a cold stimulus for the flowers to form. This phenomenon of the plant world is called vernalisation. Therefore, the main flowering period is in the winter months between November and February, depending on the variety although some modern varieties, such as ‘Double Fashion’, bloom even into April in mild years.
The white or reddish petals of Christmas roses change hue as they bloom. They fade slightly and then usually change from a shade of green to red. The flowers of Christmas roses usually remain with us for a while in this colour. After flowering, the foliage decorates the garden – so the Christmas rose serves us over the summer months as an ideal groundcover and gap filler.
Christmas rose types and varieties
In addition to the actual Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), there are about 20 other Helleborus– species, all of which are often mistakenly grouped under the name “Christmas rose” and are widespread throughout much of Europe and Asia. For example, the oriental hellebore (Helleborus orientalis), which is also called the Lenten rose or spring Christmas rose, is very well known. Compared to Christmas roses, Lenten roses open their flowers a little later, in the period from January to March.
Basically, two groups of Helleborus can be distinguished: the stem-forming (caulescent) and the non-stem-forming (acaulescent) species. As the name suggests, stem-forming species are characterised by the fact that they form stems above the ground. Furthermore, the rhizome is different from that of non-stem-forming species, which means that stem-forming species, unlike non-stem-forming species, cannot be propagated by division. While most Helleborus species belong to the non-stem-forming group, Helleborus niger occupies an intermediate position. Although the Christmas rose does not form aboveground stems, it exhibits differences from the other species in the Helleborastrum subgroup, into which all non-stem-forming species fall except the Tibet hellebore (Helleborus thibetanus) fall.
The species Helleborus niger, which will be the main focus of this article, is further subdivided into several varieties. To help you choose from this wide range of Christmas roses, we would now like to introduce you to some particularly beautiful varieties of Christmas roses.
Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’: Pure white flowers with yellowish-green centres; main bloom from January to March; clump-forming, spreading habit; grows to about 10 to 20 cm tall; wintergreen
Helleborus niger ‘Double Fashion’: White Helleborus niger ‘Double Fashion’White, double flowers; blooms from December; reaches growth heights of about 20 cm; suitable for sunny and semi-shady locations; very good winter hardiness.
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob Royal’: White flowers; blooms from November; vigorous and sturdy; medium growth; suitable for semi-shady and shady sites; very good winter hardiness.
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Joel’: Richly flowering, bright white flowers; blooms from December; compact, medium-strong habit; suitable for semi-shady and shady sites.
Helleborus niger ‘Praecox’: White, cup-shaped flowers; blooms from November to January; bushy habit; grows to about 15 to 25 cm tall; for semi-shady and shady locations; very hardy
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jericho’: Large-flowered cultivar; white flowers; blooms from December; dark green foliage; spreading habit; grows up to 30 cm tall; suitable for semi-shady locations
Helleborus niger ‘White Christmas’: Large, white cupped flowers; grows to about 20 to 30 cm tall; blooms from December to February; prefers partial shade; suitable for pot culture
Helleborus niger ‘Maximus’: Large-flowered variety; single, white flowers; blooms from November to February; spreading habit; grows to about 35 cm tall; for semi-shady places
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Joshua’: Early-flowering variety (November to December); white, cup-shaped flowers; spreading habit; reaches growth heights of up to 30 cm.
Helleborus niger ‘HGC Josef Lemper’: Early-flowering variety (from December); white, cupped flowers; medium-strong habit; grows to about 25 to 30 cm tall; for semi-shady to shady sites.
It is best to plant Christmas roses in groups, then they will look their best. However, planted slightly scattered, Christmas roses are also very suitable for planting under shrubs or trees. Wonderful combinations are also possible with other spring flowers such as tulips (Tulipa), crocus (Crocus) or snowdrops (Glanthus). Appealing perennial beds can also be created in combination with cranesbill (Geranium), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla) or columbine (Aquilegia).
In our dedicated article, you will find out what else you should consider when choosing a location for Christmas roses and where best to place your Christmas rose in a pot.
Propagating Christmas roses
If you cannot get enough of Christmas roses you should consider propagating particularly beautiful specimens yourself. The easiest is probably the method of root division after flowering in the spring. To do this, first tie the leaves loosely with raffia and slide then a pitchfork through the middle of the root ball. A second pitchfork is then placed just below the first. Now move both pitchforks slightly back and forth to divide the rhizome. Make sure that you dig into the Christmas rose deeply enough to retain as much root mass. Then plant the newly obtained plant directly in its new destination and water well. A high-quality potting soil such as our peat-free Plantura Organic Flower Compost is ideal. It provides your Christmas rose with ideal nutrients and can be made a little more permeable by mixing it with sand. For the next season, the Christmas rose should then already again form flowers.
Alternatively, you can propagate your Christmas roses by seed. However, this does not allow the propagation of a single variety. In addition, this method of propagation is very time-consuming and labour-intensive. If you still want to take the effort, take the seeds from the ripe fruit for this in early summer.
Fill a freezer bag with damp sand and then place the seeds in it in the refrigerator for about four to six weeks before sowing. This so-called stratification of the seeds is necessary because Christmas roses are cold germinators. You can achieve a similar effect if you put the seed pot on the balcony over the winter. Alternatively, you can simply bloom the Christmas roses in the bed and burst the bellows fruits. Then next spring you can enjoy the first seedlings although the first blossoms are then usually about three to four years in coming.
You can also read everything about the topic “Caring for Christmas roses” in our dedicated article.
Common diseases and pests of Christmas roses
Unfortunately, even the hardy Christmas rose is not immune to infection with plant diseases and infestation with pests. Below, we have therefore put together an overview of the most important diseases and pests on Christmas roses:
Black spot disease
Over the course of the year, the leaves of Christmas roses often form black spots. These are caused by a fungus that was for a long time known under the name Coniothyrium hellbori , although the exact origin of the pathogen is still the subject of research. According to recent findings, it is therefore more likely to belong to the genus Phoma or Microsphaeropsis. You can recognise the so-called black spot disease by the irregularly rounded black spots that appear especially on the edges of the leaves. A particularly heavy infestation can lead to the death of leaves and should therefore be be treated as early as possible. To do this, remove the old diseased foliage. To prevent further spread of leaf spot disease, dispose of the affects parts of the plant, not on the compost heap but in your residual waste bin. An excessively low pH value in the soil, an over-supply of nitrogen and persistently damp leaves can promote fungal infection. Therefore always ensure optimal site conditions so that your Christmas rose lacks nothing. In the event of an infection, fungicides are also available but these should already be used at the appearance of the first symptoms in order for an ideal effect to be achieved.
Rhizome and stem base rot
If the shoots of your Christmas rose fall to the ground in the spring without apparent reason and you notice brown to black rotting at the base, this is probably a sign of infestation with the so called rhizome or stem base threads. Unfortunately, it is near impossible to combat the pathogens that cause this. Therefore, prevention is the best policy – ensure your Christmas rose is in well-drained soil to prevent waterlogging and, subsequently, the occurrence of these fungi.
Planting Christmas roses properly is important not only to preventing pests and diseases, but to the plant’s healthy growth. Visit our article for tips and instructions on planting these beautiful perennials.
Slugs, on the other hand, love to nibble on young cotyledons and foliage of Christmas rose plants, so much so, that hardly anything of the plant remains. For the sake of the environment, it is best to use environmentally friendly means to control slugs.
Here we present a few ways to effectively get rid of slugs and protect your plants from future invasions.