Christmas Roses and Lenten Roses (Helleborus)
Christmas and Lenten roses are closely allied plants belonging to the genus Helleborus. They have no connection of any kind with true roses and get their popular name solely because of the very superficial resemblance of their flowers to single roses. All are hardy.
Christmas roses are all varieties of Helleborus niger. They have large evergreen leaves composed of numerous leaflets arranged like the claws of a bird’s foot. The flowers are white, often tinged or spotted with rose, carried singly or up to three in a cluster on bare stems 15-30cm (6-12in) long. Some forms start to flower in November or December, others not until January, February or even March.
Lenten roses are forms and hybrids of Helleborus orientalis and other allied species. Their leaves are similar to those of Helleborus niger but larger and longer stemmed and so are the flowers, of which there may be up to four on each 40-60cm (16-24in) stem. Colours are also more varied, from white to deep plum purple with many intermediate shades of purplish-pink, spotted and flushed and very beautiful. Though they are at their peak in March some may start to open in January and there may still be Lenten roses around in May.
In addition there are several other beautiful hellebores worth growing for both foliage and flower. Two of the best are Helleborus foetidus with very dark green leaves and big sprays of apple-green flowers edged with purple, the whole plant no more than 45cm (18in) high, and Helleborus corsicus, twice this height with large lighter green, saw-edged leaves and large upstanding clusters of light green flowers. Both kinds start to flower in January and continue well into the spring.
All hellebores will grow in shade but Helleborus corsicus does just as well in full sun. All like cool, rather moist, humusywith plenty of leafmould or peat and all like to be left alone to grow into large clumps and colonies. They will often spread freely by self-sown and this is particularly characteristic of the Lenten roses and of Helleborus corsicus.