Helleborus niger is called the Christmas rose more for its rose like flowers than for the reliability of seeing them at Christmas time. While hardy in zones 4-8, it can bloom anytime from December to April, depending on conditions. The prolific flowers are usually white, with green tinged centers that age to pink. You may also some with strong pink tones in the petals. H. niger White Magic has large white flowers that blush pink as they age.
Gardeners in zones 7+ may be fortunate enough to see H. niger blooming in their gardens in December. But for most, the Christmas Rose will probably put on its show about the same time as H. orientalis, the Lenten Rose, sometime in early to mid-spring. Unlike the Christmas Rose, H. orientalis, is usually a sign that winter is coming to an end. It is a welcome sight, often emerging from the hard, still frozen ground. H. orientalis has a larger flower than H. niger and there is a greater variety of flower colors. The foliage typically reaches about 15 inches in height and the flowers are held above the foliage. The leaves themselves are pedate, meaning even the basal lobes or leaflets are palmately lobed, like an outstretched palm. H. orientalis is hardy in zones 6-9.
Christmas Rose or Lenten Rose?
Most Hellebore species are evergreen, with attractive clumps of leathery, dark green foliage. Warmer climates can enjoy this display throughout the winter. In colder areas where the plants are battered by snow, ice and wind, the foliage is not such a delight to see. You can however cut the foliage back to ground level in early spring. Your plant may not yet have new foliage as it begins to bloom, but fresh leaves should follow shortly thereafter and remain attractive throughout the summer.
Care in the Garden
Insects and disease rarely bother with hellebores. Slugs and aphids can be a problem, particularly while in bloom.
Hellebores are natives of central and southern Europe and the various species are at home in a diverse range of habitats. Basically a woodland flower, Hellebores prefer partial shade and rich, mist soil.
Hellebores divisions take a long time to increase in size, so most plants are propagated from seed. This adds to the variability of plants with the same name. If you want a specific color, your best chance of getting it is by purchasing the plant while it is in bloom.
Only about a decade ago, it was rare to see a Hellebore plant in any but the true collectors garden. Breeders have been working for years to produce more variety in color, size and patterns and in the process, developed plants that are quite hardy and easy to grow. There are many on the market with purple, pink, white and yellow markings.
Cultivars to Look For
You may see new offerings labeled as Helleborus x hybridus. These are the result of some breeding work that focused on improving H. orientalis. They are also sometimes referred to simply as H. orientalis hybrids and are hardy in zones 6-9. Again, try to find plants that are in bloom, so you are sure of what you are getting.
There are some named varieties on the market that are worth looking for. The Phedar Select Strain, developed by Hellebore breeder Will McLewin, in the U. K., are now available in the U.S. This series contains the dark purple, almost black flowered varieties you have probably seen in pictures. It also offers several lighter flower colors, with unusual interior markings.
Semi-double flowers and blooms with dark margins are the result of work by hybridizer Helen Ballard, in England. Peggy Ballard Is a deep reddish pink with a darker center and veins. Philip Ballard is a dark bluish-black.
You can also find several yellow Hellebores. Citron is described as primrose yellow, while Yellow Button has smaller, deep yellow flowers that change from cup shaped to saucer shaped.
If you can bear to take the bloom from your garden, Hellebores make long lasting cut flowers if the stem ends are dipped into boiling water before placing in cold water.