When I started gardening I quickly learned the value of hellebores in the winter and spring garden but they were nowhere near as popular as they are now and they were rather difficult to buy. In my teens I worked in a garden centre where the only hellebore we sold was the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger). Plants arrived with bare roots in autumn and we potted them for sale in spring – when they bloomed. That has always been the problem with the Christmas rose – it flowers at Christmas. There was a fabled variety called ‘Potter’s Wheel’ which boasted extra large flowers and a good chance of some blooms at Christmas but it had to be increased by dividing the plants and this is laborious and slow so plants were rare and expensive.
Nurseries have perfected the way to grow them now so you can buy them packed with flower buds, but they can be more difficult to keep them going. The Christmas rose is deservedly popular but, unlike its later cousins, the Lenten roses (Helleborus hybridus) it can be a bit tricky to grow. It demands a soil that is full of organic matter so you need to mix in lots of compost before you plant and it prefers light shade. It also prefers an alkaline soil so will not thrive where camellias and rhododendrons grow, unless you add a little lime around them.
But plant breeders have worked very hard to create new kinds that are easier to grow and bloom reliably for Christmas and some are easy to spot because of their names. Two that appealed to me are ‘Christmas Darling’ and Christmas Carol’. ‘Christmas Darling’ is the more unusual because the flowers have a distinct greenish centre, even when the flowers have just opened, something that is more common on old flowers. When the flowers do age they become green so last for ages. ‘Christmas Carol’ is my favourite because the petals are round a broad, forming a large, showy flower. They are pure white with golden stamens and a ring of showy nectaries. Another likeable feature is the way the flowers look upwards, showing you their faces, something which is rather unusual in hellebores.
With decent weather and protection from slugs and snails, these hellebores will bloom for several months, at the coldest time of the year. As the weather warms and the earliest spring bulbs start to bloom, the Lenten roses take over, but that is a different story…
- If you get a Christmas rose as a present remember that it is not an indoor plant. You can keep it indoors for a week or so but keep it in a bright spot and as cool as possible. Never let it dry out.
- Plant in a part-shaded spot outside. Fork in compost and mulch every year with well rotted compost.
- Maintain old, established plants by feeding in spring, clearing away old leaves in late autumn and protecting fading flowers from greenfly.