What could be more beautiful than the snow-white flowers of Helleborus niger emerging in early winter? It is less widely grown than H. orientalis, the Lenten rose, and the many other Hellebore hybrids because they are more vigorous and come in a wider range of colours, but the H. niger retains its charm for many gardeners. It usually blooms after the festive period but is known as the 'Christmas rose' due to a story that it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a poor shepherd who had nothing to give the newborn Jesus.
Hellebore are classified as herbaceous plants, although their leaves are considered evergreen, with a tough, waxy habit. The 'Christmas rose' is the earliest of the Hellebore to flower. It is distinct because of its large, pure white, waxy flowers carried on stiff, upright stems and dark, leathery foliage. The flower petals often take on a pinkish hue as the season progresses.
While much of the breeding within the Hellebore genus has focused on the H. orientalis, there have been developments made with the H. niger producing large-flowered, vigorous strains, such as the Harvington hybrids, as well as pink and double-flowered forms. Several highly attractive niger varieties are included in the Helleborus Gold Collection, which is the result of work by German breeders Peter Oenings and Josef Heuger.
H. niger has a reputation for being more difficult to grow than the other Hellebore. It can be hard to establish and slow to increase. It is an alpine species so grows naturally on slopes where it can be protected from harsh frosts. The flowers bloom as the snow melts. In snowy conditions, the leaves will remain pristine but, in gardens the leaves will turn brown in the winter, before giving way to flower stalks and foliage in the new year.
Therefore, what H. niger is looking for is well-drained conditions and ample water in the spring. To meet its needs, prepare the soil well, creating humus-rich conditions with good drainage. Once planted they do not like disturbance. They prefer part shade and a site protected from the worst of the elements. Pests to watch out for are aphids, slugs, mice, root nematodes and thrips. The dramatically named Black-Spot and Black Death diseases can also be a problem.
While generally grown as perennial ground cover in the garden, the 'Christmas rose' can actually be kept as a houseplant for a short time, if kept cool. It is also a popular cut flower and mature flowers will last a long time.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
David Ward, plant propagation manager, Beth Chattos, Essex
"It is important to obtain named varieties. Vegetative methods that used to be used were slow and tended to introduce disease. Tissue culture has helped improve availability, uniformity and health. Particularly impressive are the gold collection of hybrids such as H. 'Jesse', H. 'Jacob Classic' and H. 'Jonas'. They flower early and given a protected position are not damaged too much by our wet, damp winters.
"The key selling point of the 'Christmas rose' is its name, but unfortunately the only plants that truly flower at Christmas are those that have been forced and imported into Britain. Clean, healthy, vigorous plants raised from tissue culture and grown on in cold protected tunnels produce stunning pots full of healthy foliage with long-lasting flowers in pristine condition ideal for late-winter and early-spring sales.
"H. niger is notoriously difficult to please. Plants resent disturbance so it's important to find a suitable site and prepare the soil well. They like part shade and a humus-rich soil, yet good drainage and a site protected from the worst of the elements. Aphids, slugs and mice can cause problems. Keep on top of black spot on the foliage and destroy any infected leaves."
John Winterson, deputy plant buyer, RHS Plant Centres
"Our best selling Hellebore is straight niger, but this could be because we sell the majority of these in flower in 9cm pots at a nice accessible price. In fact, H. niger is number nine in our top 100 best ever selling herbaceous plants at the Wisley Plant Centre, so you can instantly tell how important they are to our customers. They brighten up the otherwise shadier parts of the garden and can be used to lift tubs and containers in the winter and early spring.
"Cultivars of niger that sell well with us include 'Potter's Wheel', which is my favourite. It grows a mass of very large glistening white flowers, each with a bold green eye. You often get a full three-litre pot just bursting with flower and no leaves - you just can't help but buy one. The deeply cupped flowers are borne from January to March over glossy green foliage. If we have these with flowers on, they fly out the door because they really do look stunning, especially if you trim off some of the foliage to show off the flowers.
"A more recent introduction that sells very well, despite its high retail price, is H. niger 'HGC Jacob'. This cultivar from the Helleborus Gold Collection is a very early-flowering niger variety. It can bloom from the end of November. The pure white flowers form a beautiful contrast with the rich, dark-green foliage.
"Another early flowering cultivar that our customers like is H. niger 'White Christmas'. This selection, raised by Hillier Nurseries, again has very large flowers that hold up well and are often upward facing. A pink flush often develops too. The flowers usually start in December and flower until March.
"Hellebore are nice and easy for the planteria. They only need occasional watering, are frost proof and have a long shelf life. En masse, they make a perfect impulse display and we also merchandise them in our A-Z herbaceous section, where there are 40 different Hellebore from which to choose."
SPECIES AND VARIETIES
H. niger - Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (H4), or the 'Christmas rose', has dark-green, leathery leaves and white, single flowers that can be tinged pink. Height: 25cm.
H. niger 'Ashwood Strain', bred by Ashwood Nurseries, has well formed, cup-shaped rounded flowers of purest white and strong stems. Height: 15-20cm.
H. niger - 'Blackthorn Strain' is a good flowering compact strain. Its flowers are generally pink in bud, open white with a green eye and become flushed pink in early Spring. Developed by Robin White by crossing 'White Magic' with 'Louis Cobbett'. The plant flowers from January to March. Height: 40cm. Spread: 45cm.
H. niger - Harvington hybrids are a vigorous, large-flowered strain from Liz and Hugh Nunn. White flowers with golden stamens are produced from December to March. A double 'Christmas rose' is also available as part of this group.
H. niger - 'HGC Jacob' Plant Breeders' Rights (PBR) is a very early-flowering variety that can bloom from the end of November. It is a newish cultivar from the Helleborus Gold Collection, bred by Peter Oenings and Josef Heuger in Germany. It has pure white flowers against rich, dark-green foliage. Height: 30cm.
H. niger - 'HGC Joshua' (PBR) is currently the earliest flowering variety in the Helleborus Gold Collection, producing flowers from early November. It is a compact variety, whose flowers stand neatly above the foliage canopy.
H. niger - 'Marion' is a double-flowered form, with slim white petals. It breeds fairly true but some seedlings are more double than others.
H. niger - 'Maximus' is more robust than the rest of the species. It bears large, pure white blooms, some of which fade to pink, above evergreen, dark, leathery foliage.
H. niger - 'Potter's Wheel' produces masses of large, glistening white flowers with a bold green eye, above glossy green foliage.
H. niger - 'Praecox' is an early-flowering variety that has been known to bloom at Christmas, but usually does so slightly later. It has beautiful white blossoms, sometimes tinged with pink or green. It makes a good cut flower.
H. niger - Sunset Group is a collection of plants with pink or red colouring, resulting from selections made by Will McLewin. The flowers are large and strong-stemmed.
H. niger - 'Walberton's rosemary' is the result of a cross of H. niger and H. orientalis by David Tristam of Walberton Nursery. It is very floriferous, producing masses of pink flowers, with paler insides that turn to a rich rose pink, inside and out.
H. niger - 'White Christmas' is an early flowering cultivar that flowers from December until March. It has large white flowers that stand up well, are often upward facing and develop a pink flush. A selection has been raised by Hillier Nurseries.
H. niger - 'White Magic' produces small, bright-green leaves and masses of white, well-shaped flowers on dark stems.