Hellebore Plant or the Christmas Rose
Recently, while hurrying in from shopping just before my celebration of Christmas, I was amazed to find a plant in bloom despite the cold winter temperatures. In fact with night time getting to -3 Celsius and highs during the day of +2, most of the plants in my garden have long died or frozen. Certainly the white blooms that bobbed in the cold winter winds caught my eye and then after a few pictures, led me to check on this plant which was new to my garden and whose name I remembered to be Hellebore plant or the Christmas Rose.
Hellebore Plant general Information
This Genus of plants, from the Ranunculaceae (or buttercup) Family, are early-flowering, generally poisonous perennial plant that has large divided leaves. According to folklore hellebore was used in 585 BC. , to poison the Greek city of Kirrha’s water supply, leaving the troops weak with diarrhea and unable to defend the city and it is even suspected in the death of Alexander the Great.
Native to much of Europe and parts of Asia, these plants are found naturally growing in areas of England, Spain, and Portugal. They also grow wild along the northern coast of Turkey with the greatest concentration in the Balkans. In North America, based on plant temperature zone, these plants are grown successfully hardy from as low as Zone 4 to the warmer zone 8.
The Hellebores, originally 16-20 species, were valued for their winter and early spring flowers and still are today. Classic species were known for their drooping white, pink, dark purple, sometimes green flowers on plants which generally grew 12-15 inches tall. These flowers are made up of 5 petals that are not typical, but are unique modified sepals that support the real flower which is in the centre of the “petals”. The hellebore’s real flower is a ring of small cup like petals called nectarines.
Nectaries are special cup or tubular like petals that contain glands that secrete nectar to entice insects, especially bees. This sugary substance not only provides an important food source for the bees in cooler weather, but attracts them for the purpose of pollinating the plants themselves. Both the nectaries and the sepals last a long time and then fall of similarly to petals falling off a rose.
Highly valued for their colder weather flowers, Hellebores are now grown and planted with increasing popularity. As a result originally with 20 species, now breeders have begun hybridization of the original 20 species to mass produce an increasingly wide variety of plants with different colour blooms and petal combinations, including double flowered varieties. Now colours range from dark purple through to different shades of green, with multi -toned and even speckled blooms. Of course there are still many amazing single bloom specimens too!
H. Argutifolius or Corsican Hellebore is widely grown for its pale green star shaped flowers and leathery foliage. In my garden, I have the very popular Hellebore Plant or the Christmas Rose, official known as H. Niger. This plant white has pure white flowers in winter, specifically near Christmas In fact, the blooms on mine opened the day before Christmas and now are covered in snow, barely alive on this January 1, 2013.
H. Orientalis, which is commonly known as Lenten Rose based on the plant’s seasonal flowering time near Easter, has flowers that range from white to creamy yellow. Originally found in the Ukraine, this species is not commonly found in gardens, but is used to create new subspecies due to its hardiness and the ease of which it adapts to new colour formations. Currently the Orientals and hybrids are increasing in popularity and they are seen in gardens everywhere.
Hellebores are readily found at your local garden centres or perhaps you are lucky enough to have a friend who will split you off a starter plant in late spring or early fall. The plant may be added to your garden in the summer as well, but as they prefer shade and consistent levels of moisture they will need much closer attention if that is your planting time.
Hellebore plants can grow in any type of soil, but thrive best in soil that is well draining as they do not like to have soggy roots. Once established however Hellebore plants are quite drought tolerant. In addition, they like soil is rich in nutrients, especially organic matter.
Before planting anything, knowing your soil type is important. If you want a complete analysis of your soil, there are test kits for general info and site where it can actually be sent away for a complete breakdown in to elements such as Sodium (Na+) etc. For most of us, knowing if the soil is sandy or clay in composition as well as the basic pH, that is good enough.
If you have heavy clay soil, adding some grit, such as sand and mixing them together well with organic matter will provide better drainage as well as basic nutrients. For sandy soil, adding some heavier clay based soil or clay pellets will help prevent the water from running through too quickly.
In either case, it is reported in quite a few articles, that Hellebore plants prefer alkaline soil. This means earth with a pH of over 7.0. However, unless you know the pH of your soil, adding too many additives can cause more problems than it solves. One article I found stated they preferred 7.0 which is in fact a neutral pH and says Hellebores grow fine near evergreens. Evergreen trees and their fallen needles make the soil pH lower than 7.0, but should not be a problem.
Again, testing for pH can be done with a kit purchased at many garden centres. If you need to bring it up, dolomite Lime is suggested and to lower the pH, sulphur is recommended. Certainly checking with the garden centre were you buy these products is best before adding, as the amount needed depends on the test results and the area of soil you plan to adjust.
Before planting, adding organic compost, such as manure, leaf mold, mushroom compost or lovely rich homemade compost and mixing it in to the soil well will always give any plants a good start. Once they are beginning to show signs of new growth, adding bone meal or a slow release fertilizer will help once the plants are established and before the height of summer’s heat arrives.
Again, there are differences in opinion here. Generally however, Hellebore plants prefer partial shade and not the midday sun for hours. Suggested locations for planting are near deciduous trees for several reasons. First these trees provide a break for hot sun during the summer and secondly once their leaves fall off, the plants will be able to take advantage of the reduced strength of the sun in the fall and winter months.
Planting near evergreen hedging or rows of conifers, provides a break against the dry and biting cold of winter winds. Provided the hellebore is planed with half a day of reasonable light the plant should be fine.
Hellebore plants are susceptible a few disease including blight mold and crown rot fungal as well as Black Spot and Black Death. Both Black Spot and Black Death cause blacking on the leaves, but the Death is far more fatal. If you see darkening of the leaves or any disease at all, examine the plant closely, make notes and then head straight to a horticultural expert!
Hellebore Black Death is a serious disease of hellebores, probably caused by a newly discovered virus, where plants become stunted, deformed and marked by black streaks and ring patterns. This viral disease causes stunting and distortion. In addition, it causes black streaking and netting patterns on the leaves that can also develop on the stems and flowers. All infected plants should be dug up promptly and destroyed as there is no known treatment that controls Black Death.
Black spot is generally known as leaf spot and in this plant is caused by the fungus Microsphaeropsis hellebore. The fungus infects leaves and stems giving rise to roughly round dead, brown spots. Remove all affected leaves promptly and destroy them so they will not be a source of re-infection in the next gardening season. In addition there are also fungicides available at garden centre, which can be effective on Hellebore plants.
Hellebore plants are good eating for aphids, mice, slugs and snails. These all prefer the seedlings found from this self-seeding plant as well as the buds on mature plants. Sprays are available for aphids, and traditional course grit may prove to be effective against snails and slugs.
Despite everything, most plant experts agree that hellebores are generally trouble-free, but it pays to be aware of possible problems. As with many other family of plants good breeding practises have resulted in many new varieties that are easy to care for and resistant to most pests and diseases. All this being said, I still love my Hellebore Plant or the Christmas Rose.
Armed with my new found knowledge and an ever increasing fascination of the inspiration gardens have over me, I intend to try several other species of Hellebore plants this coming spring and hope you will too!