A rose by another other name… is pretty amazing when it’s blooming in the middle of winter. Sometimes called the Christmas rose, Lenten rose, and/or winter rose, they are all hellebores and they are just what we need in the grey days of winter and early spring. While other plants are sleeping, the hellebores are blooming. Shakespeare quotes aside, I should mention hellebores are not actually roses (they are closer in relation to clematis) but considering the beauty of their flowers it’s no surprise they have been labeled rose.
Generally speaking, there are two different types of hellebore, although with the many different breeding programs there is a lot of mixing and hybridizing. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger and various cultivars developed from it) blooms in December, and the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis and the many cultivars bred from it) bloom closer to the Easter season. These late winter/early spring blooming hellebores are in the garden centre right now in all their glory.
And glorious they are, in the last few years there have been a number of new and quite frankly amazing cultivars come on to the scene. Plant breeders have produced amazing new hybrid hellebores that feature long-lasting, cup-shaped, and either pendant or outward-facing flowers. They come in colours that range from slate grey, deep purple, vibrant pink, deep plum, rich red, bright yellow, chartreuse green and snowy white. But many also feature textural details such as, picotee edging, stripes, two-toned contrasting colours, single, double and anemone-centred. And something quite new and exciting is coloured and textured foliage for year-round interest. The variety is stunning and the number of hellebore collectors and devotes are on the rise.
Another great thing about these winter gems is how easy they are to grow; they are just as happy in a garden bed or a container. These evergreen perennials grow to 28-45cm (11-18”) in height; so, make sure to plant them somewhere you can see them during the wet cold months, like a pot on the patio, near the front door or at the front of a garden bed. They are also shade tolerant, so a great option for under deciduous trees/shrubs. Featuring leathery, glossy-green, palmate leaves with serrated margins, to me they almost have a tropical vibe (much needed in the grey days of winter). The best part, they are frost resistant down to Zone 5. Make sure they have lots of organic matter in the soil by annually amending with Sea Soil or compost, and make sure there is moisture but the soil is still well drained. One thing to avoid is overly acid soils, so no peat moss, and consider a once-a-year sprinkle of lime in the spring.
One thing to note is hellebores are actually toxic, so don’t eat them… not that I think you would. This should not cause you concern as many plants in our garden are not edible, but it’s just a good thing to know. In some rare cases handling hellebores has caused some people skin irritations, in a similar manner to euphorbias. So, just take care if you are someone who has sensitive skin and wear gloves. One benefit of this toxicity is that they are deer resistant, for those of you with seriously voracious deer issues.
Here are three of the stunning new collections that you should run down to the garden centre and get your hands on before they are gone.
Ice N’ Roses (Helleborus x glandorfensis) are a series from the Helleborus Gold Collection and are known for their robust nature and prolific blooms. Large, long-living flowers are held high above the foliage and are continuously being replaced by more blooms, the show goes on and on. With flower colours ranging from white, pink, red and even bi-colour flowers. Some of the extra bonuses are the red flowers retain their colour as they age and these hellebores are better able to handle a sunny spot.
Frostkiss are the perfect hellebores for year-round interest. Not only do they boast big beautiful flowers, but their leaves have attractive marbled design. They are so stunning you almost don’t need the flowers, but you get them anyways.
- ‘Anna’s Red’ is something special, not only does it have dark red outward-facing flowers but the new leaves are flushed with a glowing-red marbling on green. As they age the red marbling turns to a vibrant green-apple colour on dark green background.
- ‘Pippa’s Purple’ with purple/pink flowers above pink and silver marbled leaves that mature to vibrant green marbling on dark green.
- ‘Sally’s Shell’ a soft glowing pink with slightly nodding flowers and similar pink/silver marbling that fades to vibrant green marbling on dark green background.
Winter Jewels are a stunning group of outward-facing, mostly double-flowered (although some single), in stunning colours and contrasting colour combinations. My particular favourites include:
- ‘Fire and Ice’ has a large double flower with a picotee colouration, pure white petals that are thinly edge with rose-red margins. The contrast is eye catching.
- ‘Rose Quartz’ is another large double flowering variety but with a white and pink picotee colour combination.
- ‘Jade Tiger’ is a unique green double flower that is edged and sometimes streaked with a dark garnet red colour.
- ‘Black Diamond’ for those who are interested in something unique, the colour of this flower is black with burgundy undertones and wonderfully contrasting chartreuse nectaries. The foliage also has a delightfully dark tone.
- ‘Amber Gem’ has large, ruffled, double flowers in a colour that could only be described as peachy with pink, yellow and sometimes red highlights.
Legend has it that the Christmas rose, came into being when it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to baby Jesus.
Ancient Greeks used the hellebore medicinally to treat ailments such as paralysis and gout. However, we now know about the toxicity of the plant, it might not have been the best idea in hindsight.
Written by: Ingrid Hoff