Helleborus niger or Christmas rose is a perennial flowering plant from the Ranunculaceae buttercup family. It is indigenous to Europe and Asia. While the flowers look like wild roses, it is not part of the rose or Rosaceae family. It gets its common name from a legend that sprouted from the tears of a young shepherdess who had no gift to give the infant Jesus in Bethlehem.
This is an evergreen plant that grows in a bushy clump, 12-15 inches tall with shiny, dark green leaves. It usually bears a 2-4 inch single white flower on a 9–12 inch stalk. The petal tips are sometimes tinged pink or green with a center of yellow.
This plant is a popular garden favorite since it blooms in winter while most of the species are largely white-flowered, there are several different hybrid cultivars available, some with larger flowers, with a few pink-flowered varieties, and some producing double flowers. Once the plant is established, it has been known to thrive for 50+ years in the right conditions.
This plant was with the ancient Greeks, often prescribed by Hippocrates – the word “hellebore” actually comes from Greek, meaning “food to injure”. Pliny, the Roman documented that this plant was used by people as early as 1400 B.C.
This plant has adapted to cool climates and is easy to cultivate in gardens, containers, in shade under trees or large shrubs, making a beautiful groundcover when grown together in clumps.
It prefers to grow outdoors in partial shade under trees in temperate climates, which allows it to get sunlight in winter when the trees are bare.
Plants grown outdoors in gardens are better at getting water as their long roots can go deep to reach the water. Potted plants need more care in this regard. Watering it during the early morning/late afternoon is best. It prefers the soil to be moist with good drainage. Over-watering must be avoided as it will cause root rot and the leaves become yellow and don’t let the soil become completely dry.
Potted plants must be watered once or twice weekly – the roots must not be completely dry, so you will have to monitor the plant to get the right frequency. Adding mulch can minimize evaporation and help keep the soil damp. However, the plant will tell when it needs water as its leaves will begin drooping.
These plants can adapt to any level of humidity.
Since this plant is naturally adapted to cooler temperatures, it should be kept in the coldest room of the house with a temperature of 55-60oF. It needs to experience 4-6 weeks of cold temperatures between 40-45oF. Providing such low temperatures will be challenging, particularly indoors or in warmer climates.
This plant grows best in rich, fertile soils that can remain moist but also well-drained. Adding perlite or gravel will help improve drainage capacity.
This plant rarely needs repotting, provided that the pot is large and tall enough for its long roots. Repotting also stresses the plant so it’s better to let it grow undisturbed. If necessary, then prepare a large and tall pot with plenty of drainage holes and partially fill it with suitable soil.
Remove it from its old container as carefully as possible and transfer it into the new one. Add more soil to the new pot and add a layer of mulch, taking care to avoid the stem.
This plant naturally propagates itself from seed, but it’s a complicated process needing specific temperatures, etc. Dividing the plant or removing offsets is much easier.
The suitable time for dividing it is when you’re repotting or transplanting it. As mentioned, this plant is very fussy and it’s best to divide it only when it becomes necessary. Remove the plant and wash off excess soil.
Cut the roots with the stems into 2 or 3 sections. Each section should then be planted in suitable pots filled with fresh soil in a shaded location. Water them as usual, giving them time to adjust and start thriving again. Provide supplemental water as the plant adjusts.
The other way to propagate this plant is to carefully harvest the offsets or babies that grow around the plant’s base. Repot the offsets into 4-inch pots packed with suitable soil. Water them lightly to keep the soil saturated, under bright shade for about a year, and then they can be transplanted to larger pots the following autumn.
Adding a rich organic fertilizer such as compost or vermicast to the soil when planting or repotting will do away with using chemical fertilizers. Continue feeding it once a month by removing some of the topsoils and replacing it with fresh compost until winter. This will supply all the nutrients the plant needs.
Cut off any dead/damaged leaves to maintain and care for the plant. Remove flower stalks once the blooms have died and before seeds can form.
Black powdery mildew often plagues these plants causing changes in the colors of the leaves and making them wither. Heavily infected foliage and stems must be removed immediately and destroyed.
Aphids can also occasionally infest these plants, hiding underneath leaves and inside older flowers. While they are not a big problem or threat, they will still cause damage to the leaves and stems. Spray the plant with neem oil and cut down all infested stalks.
Sometimes, snails/slugs can attack the plant and chew on the leaves. Spread Diatomaceous earth near the plant to deter the pests.
Black spot disease can also infect these plants, forming on the top of leaves, even killing the leaves if the spots get bigger. Prune off infected foliage and destroy it.