Dear Miss Floribunda,
What is a Christmas rose? I once heard a story about a little girl who, like the Little Drummer Boy, was too poor to give a gift to Baby Jesus. She didn’t have the Little Drummer Boy’s chutzpah or alleged talent, but instead stayed outside the stable and cried. An angel turned her tears into flowers that would be called “Christmas roses” from that time on. I assume they were not real roses, because I know they don’t bloom in winter. OK, out in Virginia recently, I saw in the window of an Asian-American dry cleaner/laundry some awesome red flowers that looked like roses, but they were on straight stalks like lilies. The people inside gave them a name that sounded to me like “dragon,” but perhaps it wasn’t an English word and I heard wrong.
Do you think these flowers could possibly be the “roses” from the story?
Marvelling on Madison Street
I am pretty sure that you saw a fabulous double amaryllis called Double Dragon. This plant is distantly related to lilies but completely unrelated to roses, despite the shape of the flowers on this relatively recent hybrid variety. Amaryllis are forced from bulbs indoors so that they will bloom for the winter holidays. They are native to South Africa and normally bloom in March in mild climates. Most produce a trumpet-like flower that comes in shades of pink, white, coral red, and green, as well as in picotee (light centers with darker petal edges) or striped variations of these colors. Beautiful new hybrids mimic other flowers and are not as easily recognized as the amaryllis you see in the supermarket or hardware store.
The actual “Christmas rose” (Helleborus nigris) of the old legend comes from Europe, where it grows outside in December during the fairly temperate winters in that part of the world. It will bloom in light snow. You can grow it here in a sheltered part of your garden. My friend Noel Ewell nurtures a lovely display of them under some apple trees on the south side of his house. He tells me that they are related to buttercups, and like them are in the ranunculus genus. They are rather low growing, with the blooms surrounded by fans of coarse but handsome leaves. The actual flowers of the classic original look very much like simple wild roses. Their petals are usually white, turning pink with time, but there are interesting purple and green varieties too. Their siblings, the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), come in a wider range of form and color. (The most recent and varied cultivars of Helleborus orientalis are the Ballard group, Helleborus x hybridus.) They bloom in late winter and early spring and can sustain floral interest in the garden most of the winter right up till the spring bulbs take over. I don’t know of any legend about the Lenten rose, but certainly consider them wonderful gifts. It is not always easy to find them, but you can contact the Hellebore Appreciation Society for vendors.
All hellebore varieties are very easy to grow, and they tolerate semi-shade very well. In our climate they prefer it. They like somewhat alkaline soil but are not fussy. Their only real requirement is good drainage. Noel says he rarely fertilizes his, yet they thrive and spread nicely but not invasively. I asked him about bringing them indoors in pots for a bit. He said this was a possibility but had a caveat. Although the fibrous texture of the leaves is uninviting to children and animals, they are poisonous if ingested. In ancient times, hellebores were used to repel flies and evil spirits, as well as to make a number of herbal remedies. One big benefit to us now is that deer and squirrels leave these plants strictly alone.
If you’d like to find out about these and other pretty seasonal flowers, do come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Dec. 17, at the home of Jean and Millard Smith, 3600 Longfellow Street. After the 10 a.m. meeting, there will be a festive holiday party with refreshments.