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Turning the 'Christmas Rose' Into a Year-Round Plant

Q. I was in a supermarket today and they were selling flowering plants of a specific variety of the Christmas Rose [Helleborus niger] I had been looking for. I picked up three and want to plant them in the garden, but it's covered in snow and ice right now. I have a feeling that plants in flower have not been hardened off enough to move outside (but I don't know for sure). What would be the best way to keep them healthy until I can plant them in the spring? Or should I move them outside—to a spot that's out of the wind; maybe with a towel over them at night? Many thanks,

---Leon in State College, PA

A. What a festive topic! And from a listener whose name is "Noel" spelled backwards! (Which I know from a classic holiday routine on the old Dick Van Dyke TV show, where a Christmas caroler was holding their music upside down and sang "Leon…Leon…" to the tune of "Noel…Noel".)

Anyway, the answers to the questions of putting the plants outside right away are no, no and an especially big 'no' to the towel. (Row covers, yes; grow tunnels, yes; bath towels, no!)

Now, hellebores are among the cold hardiest plants in our landscapes, and the species we call 'the Christmas Rose' really can bloom outdoors at Christmas time. (At least it did under the pre-Gregorian calendar, when Christmas fell on January 6th. Maybe we should change the common name to the Orthodox Christmas Rose!) But that's a plant that's been nicely settled in the ground for a while. And some sources suggest having a big 'cloche'—an over-sized bell-shaped plant protector—on hand if even a well-established plant blooms right before a big ice or snow storm.

And I feel strongly that plants that have been forced—like this and virtually all of the other blooming Christmas favorites—are already off their schedule and need extra pampering.

My suspicions were confirmed by my old friend Barry Glick, who may be the biggest breeder of hellebores in the country; he says he typically has 300,000 in cultivation at his "Sunshine Farms and Gardens" in West Virginia. He's the ultimate ambassador for these plants, which are among the earliest to bloom, do well in shade, and aren't touched by pestiferous plant nibblers like deer, voles or Evil Squirrels.

Barry took a short break from plowing snow to explain that the best course of action with a 'holiday hellebore' is to keep the plant indoors in a bright window until all danger of a hard freeze has passed and then plant it outside in the Spring in an area that gets dappled shade and drains well. Barry really emphasizes the drainage part; he told me "the only way I've been able to kill a Hellebore is to over water it".

That means that our listener should have a light hand with the water inside as well. It's always easier to revive a slightly dry plant than to bring a drowned one back from the dead. And with plants purchased at that "ho, ho, ho" time of year, good watering begins with getting rid of the decorative foil that typically adorns the pots of holiday plants—at least temporarily.

Remove the foil, place the plant in a sink with a few inches of water, and then just let it sit there for a half hour or so to allow the drainage holes to take up the moisture. Then pick up the plant and note how it feels, which should be heavy with water. Let it drain in the dish rack, then put it back in place. You can replace the decorative foil if you must (I don't recommend it), but don't water it again until the pot feels noticeably lighter.

Now let's take a minute to discuss these fascinating plants. From the common name, you might expect red flowers, but a true species of the Christmas rose has white blooms (although they do turn a little pink as they age). Why "rose" in the common name? Early botanists thought that the flowers of hellebores looked like those of wild roses; so some hellebores acquired common names like "Christmas rose" and "Lenten rose" that combined that misconception with their typical bloom time. There's also a folk tale that says the 'Christmas' name originated when a young girl shed tears because she had no gift for the baby Jesus and a blooming hellebore popped up out of the snow.

Hellebores are poisonous—that's why deer and Evil Squirrels won't mess with them. (Their toxicity has even been linked to the death of Alexander the Great; who may have drank an ill-advised elixir containing hellebore juice). The leaves can also give some people a rash, so handle them with gloves (which you should always be wearing anyway!)

Hellebores also have a long history in witchcraft and magic; it's said that the dried flowers were used by wizards to make themselves invisible! But more magical to my mind is the fact that these plants are close to perfect for people with the most common garden problems of wretched wildlife and lack of sun. Reliable bloomers that flower in shade and aren't bothered by deer—that may beat invisibility!

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