This easy perennial gives Grumpy his first blooms of 2019.

By Steve Bender
Christmas Rose Bloom
Credit: Steve Bender

My Christmas roses arrived a few days late. I expected flowers on December 25, but they waited until January 1. Am I complaining? For once, heck, no. They're the only plants blooming in my garden right now.

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is the less widely planted cousin of one of the South's favorite perennials for shade, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis). The two plants look similar to the untrained eye, so let me proceed to train yours. The stemless foliage of both is evergreen, but leaves of the former are smaller and leathery, dull green, while those of the latter are glossy, deep green. (That big clump of narrow leaves you see in the photo above are the winter foliage of spider lilies.) The flowers of Christmas rose and its hybrids are held high above the foliage and mostly white or occasionally pink. Those of Lenten rose and its hybrids come in myriad colors, including white, pink, red, purple, green, and yellow. Their blossoms nod and are best viewed from slightly below in the garden, lest their foliage obscure them.

Another big difference is the bloom time. In the South, Christmas rose starts blooming in late December and early January. Lenten rose raises the curtains on its show several weeks later.

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Christmas rose is generally thought to be more demanding to grow than Lenten rose, but I haven't found that to be the case. It does like more shade than its cousin. It's not as heat-tolerant, but more cold-hardy. Grow Christmas rose in USDA Zones 3 to 8 and Lenten rose in Zones 4 to 9. Both deer and rabbits detest them, so don't worry about losing prized plants to these unprincipled varmints.

Plant Christmas rose in fertile, moist, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter. Some people say to sprinkle lime around them every year if your soil is acid, as they prefer neutral to alkaline soil. Well, my soil is acid, I don't lime, and they don't seem to mind. As for other requirements, light shade is ideal. Water during hot, dry weather in summer. Plants eventually grow into nice clumps 8 to 12 inches tall, but don't seed as freely as Lenten roses do. Good companions include Lenten rose (natch!), hosta, pulmonaria, lily-of-the-valley, ferns, Solomon's seal, bergenia, wild ginger, and carex.

Look for Christmas rose in garden centers this spring. Good online sources include Pine Knot Farms and Sunshine Farm & Gardens.