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The fascinating story of the Christmas rose

White hellebores in the snow

The Christmas rose is a delightful flowering perennial which blooms right through the darkest days of winter. Not even a light covering of snow deters this evergreen and hardy plant, which is perhaps why it has become the stuff of myth and legend. 

Here’s everything you need to know about this tough little Yuletide bloom, including how to keep it flowering through until spring. For more inspiration, browse our colourful collection of flowering shrubs here.

What is the Christmas rose?

The Christmas rose isn’t actually a rose at all, but a hellebore – helleborus Niger. With dark green, leathery leaves it’s a clump-forming perennial that thrives in partial shade or under deciduous trees. Its stunning, pure white flowers even push up through snow, and can measure as much as 4cm in diameter. As the blooms age, they often darken to pink or green and if you deadhead at this stage, more white blooms will continue to emerge.

The Christmas rose in myth and legend

White flowers of helleborus niger on branch
The Christmas rose is often given as a special gift 
Image: Helleborus Niger from Suttons

The word helleborus originally comes from the Greek “hellein” meaning food and “bora” meaning to kill – indicating that the Christmas rose is toxic if consumed. As with many poisons, the plant was used as a medicine in ancient times and myth has it that an overdose of medication containing helleborus resulted in the death of Alexander the Great.

A much more charming myth surrounding the Christmas rose concerns a story about a young shepherdess called Madelon. Legend has it that Madelon was tending her flock one cold night and saw the three wise men of the Nativity pass by carrying their gifts to the baby Jesus. Madelon wept because she had nothing to give. However, as her tears fell to the ground an angel parted the snow to reveal a plant with beautiful white flowers – a Christmas rose – and the perfect gift.

How to grow and care for your Christmas rose

Collection of white hellebores in a pot against black background
Hellebore ‘Christmas Carol’ Gift from Suttons is a fabulous addition to shaded borders
Image: ©Hoogeveen / Visions BV, Netherlands

Although it’s sometimes gifted as an indoor plant, helleborus Niger shouldn’t be kept indoors for more than a few days and even then must be placed in a bright, cool spot and the soil kept moist. When planting it out, take care choosing its final position because, like all hellebores, once established, your Christmas rose won’t like being disturbed.

Choose a spot in partial shade and plant into fertile, well-drained soil. Hellebores prefer a neutral to alkaline soil with lots of organic matter like leaf mould or compost worked into it. Once you’ve planted your Christmas rose, apply a layer of mulch followed by a top dressing of general-purpose fertiliser each spring.

A cottage garden favourite and a beautiful winter-flowering evergreen, Christmas roses are a must for anyone looking for a winter bloomer. But why stop there? There are lots of winter-flowering plants from which to choose, plus some wonderful foliage plants to provide colour and interest all through the darker months. For more information, head over to our guide to planting winter bedding

Lead image: Christmas rose plant from Suttons ©Branded Garden Products

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