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Roses at Christmastime

by Jim Wilson

Dream on; only in the Deep South and Southern California can you expect real roses to bloom even sporadically at Christmastime. But the "Christmas Rose," Helleborus niger, will bloom in mid to late winter, even when peeking through snow and ice. A warm, fall season can bring plants into color as early as Thanksgiving.

Christmas Roses and Lenten Roses

Considerable confusion exists with home gardeners, between Christmas roses and Lenten roses, Helleborus orientalis. You might think that identification would be easy: Christmas roses should bloom at Christmas, and Lenten roses during Lent. The only problem with this reasoning is that in USDA hardiness zones seven and south, the seasons of bloom of the two species overlap considerably.

Some gardeners think that Christmas roses are always white and that Lenten roses are always spotted or splashed with reddish purple. Not always: while the true Helleborus niger has large, pristine white flowers, its hybrids with other species can show colored blossoms. And when Lenten roses are grown from seeds, some of the seedlings may produce white flowers.

So it comes down to trusting the garden center where you buy your plants. Enter the species and cultivar names from the plastic label on a durable metal tag, because plants of the hellebores can be very long-lived. Count on their growing not much higher than 12 to 16 inches.

Directions for Planting

The hellebores like adequate lime in the soil, and both like shade--light shade in the North, and moderate afternoon shade in the South and West. Both like plenty of organic matter worked into the soil before planting. The hellebores display best if planted in groups of threes or fives. Set plants 1-1/2 to 2 ft. apart and they will gradually grow together.

Care and Feeding

Hellebores don't like root disturbance, and can react to being moved by not blooming for a season or two. But if they like their planting sites, the clumps will thicken to yield dozens of blooms, and scores of seedlings will sprout around mother plants. After the flowers have faded in the spring, sprinkle a cup of organic fertilizer around each plant; it will help strengthen the root system necessary to set a heavy crop of blossoms the following winter.

Be faithful about applying snail and slug bait around hellebores, as their evergreen foliage will attract such critters when other perennials have gone dormant.

A Beloved Perennial

No other showy, garden perennial blooms during very cold weather. You will be amazed at the punishment the hellebores can take, and keep on blooming. Perhaps it helps that their flowers are on strong stems, and either face outwards or tip down, which helps snow to slide off. There is a limit to their endurance, however; winter lows of below minus 20 degrees farenheit can kill them, unless the crowns are protected by snow cover.

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