The Christmas Rose, or Helleborus niger, is the perfect winter plant. This evergreen hardy perennial provides colour and interest in the depths of winter.
With dark green leathery lobed leaves the Christmas Rose is clump forming and thrives in partial shade or under deciduous trees. The stunning pure white flowers will push up, even through snow, and can measure as much as 4cm in diameter. Starting out pure white the flowers will often age to pink. Deadhead at this stage and more pure white blooms will emerge. Even if they have to thrust their way through a light covering of snow.
The Christmas Rose appears in more myths and legends than most plants with perhaps the most charming concerning a young shepherdess called Madelon. Legend has it that Madelon was tending her flock one cold night and saw the wise men pass by carrying their gifts to the baby Jesus. Madelon wept because she had nothing to give to Jesus, not even a flower as it was winter. However, as Madelon’s tears fell to the ground a plant appeared with beautiful white flowers – the Christmas Rose. A hovering angel parted the snow to show Madelon that she now had a flower to give as a gift.
Helliborus is in fact poisonous so perhaps not the best gift for a baby. The name comes from the Greek “hellein” meaning food and “bora” meaning kill. As with many poisons helliborus was used in ancient times as medicine. Indeed myth has it that an overdose of medication containing helliborus resulted in the death of Alexander the Great.
The Christmas Rose is far from being the only form of helliborus. Many others exist, flowering in spring in a variety of colours. Some hang their heads whilst others are upright, some are just one colour whilst others are freckled and both single and double varieties are available. There is no secret as to why this plant has long been a cottage garden favourite – it is simply beautiful.