OK – hands up anyone who grows Hellebores! Hmmm I only see one hand – what a pity – I’ll have to see if I can improve on that for next year and convince more of you to grow this semi-evergreen, earliest-and-long blooming, hardy bee magnet with beautiful, fragrant flowers and eye-pleasing foliage. Did I mention it’s also drought tolerant and will perform well in part shade? What’s not to love? Well, maybe it’s the name – hellebore (HELL-uh-bore), so maybe you will love it for the popular name of ‘Christmas rose’.
Let’s back up for a moment and fill in some details about the genus ‘Helleborus’ and its varied species and sub-species. It originated in Europe and has been revered in many cultures for its many attributes, for many centuries, but for right now I shall concentrate on two species – ‘Helleborus niger’ the pure white Christmas rose, and ‘Helleborus orientalis’ the more colorful Lenten rose, both named for their blooming season.
Hellebore hybrids have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but it is not deserved. Basic requirements are well-drained, deep fertile soil slightly on the acidic side, with adequate moisture available until the plant is well established. Part shade is preferred – deep shade will reduce flowering – afternoon sun is welcome. As hellebores have extensive root systems it is well to avoid competition with the shallow roots of large trees, but they will do wonderfully well as companions to smaller blooming shrubs. As mentioned this plant is semi-evergreen which means that there is all season interest with the dramatic leaves lasting well over the winter – old leaves should be trimmed off when new ones begin to grow in the spring.
When growing hellebores it is wise to wear gloves as all parts of the plant may cause rashes from contact with the sap or the seeds. All parts of the plant are poisonous and children and pets should be prevented from ingesting any plant parts. This is also true of many other plants associated with Christmas – holly, mistletoe and the ever-maligned poinsettia (which is the victim of a bum rap)! Common sense rules!
Here is a sampling of the folklore regarding the hellebore family which belongs to the larger buttercup family: the powdered root of the Christmas rose, when spread on the floor, will render you invisible when you step upon it. That’s quite a handy trick! Wonder if Harry Potter knew this…
Of course, in witchcraft, hellebores had uses in summoning members of the underworld, but on the plus side, they have also been helpful in casting out madness in some Greek myths (or misses). Hellebores have even been credited with weakening the defenses of a besieged city by causing diarrhea in the defenders after they drank the tainted water supply! (More Greek myths) It is also rumored that hellebores had a hand in the death of Alexander the Great…
On a happier note, the Christmas rose got its name from a legend that it sprang from the snow, sprouting from the tears shed by a young girl who had no gift for the Christ child in Bethlehem.
One last word from the Greeks – it was Pliny who decreed the preferred method of propagation of hellebores – draw a circle around the plant, face East, pray, then dig! Don’t you always do this for any plant?