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Helleborus Niger - Hardy Perennial

Author: John Wood

Helleborus Niger - Hardy Perennials and Old Fashioned Flowers

Helleborus Niger Described.

Helleborus Niger - Black Hellebore, or Christmas Rose; Nat. Ord. Ranunculaceæ.

A hardy, herbaceous perennial. It came from Austria in 1597. In favoured situations it proves evergreen; there is nothing black to be seen about a growing plant, and it has often puzzled its admirers as to the cause of its specific name, which is in reference to the black roots of a year or more old. It would appear, moreover, that this is not the true "Black Hellebore" of the ancients (see remarks under H. Orientalis). This "old-fashioned" flower is becoming more and more valued. That it is a flower of the first quality is not saying much, compared with what might be said for it; and, perhaps, no plant under cultivation is capable of more improvement by proper treatment (see Fig. 48). Soil, position, and tillage may all be made to bear with marked effect on this plant, as regards size and colour of flowers and season of bloom. We took its most used common name—Christmas Rose—from the Dutch, who called it Christmas Herb, or Christ's Herb, "because it flowereth about the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ," and we can easily imagine that its beautiful form would suggest the other part of its compound name, "rose." In sheltered parts, where the soil is deep and rich, specimens will grow a foot high and begin to bloom in December, continuing until March.

The individual flowers last a long time in perfection, either on the plant or in a cut state; they vary somewhat in their colour, some being more brown on the outer side of the sepals, and others much suffused with pink; but under glass, whether in the shape of a bell glass in the open garden, or a greenhouse, they mature to a pure white; their form is somewhat like that of a single rose, but may be more properly compared to a flower of its own order—the single pæonia. It is composed of five sepals, and is 2in. to 3in. across, being white or rose-coloured; these sepals form a corolla-like calyx; the petals are very short and tubular, nestling down amongst the tassel-like bunch of stamens; the flowers are produced on stout leafless scapes, having one or two bracteæ; for the most part the flowers are in ones or pairs, but sometimes there may be seen three, and even four, on a scape. The leaves are radical, having stout, round stalks; they are large and pedate in shape, stout, and of leathery substance. The habit of the plant is neat, growing into rounded tufts.

In suitable quarters it proves a quick grower, whilst in ungenial situations it will hardly increase, though it is seldom killed. As it happens that its flowers are produced at a most unfavourable time for keeping them clean, they should be covered with some kind of glass shelters, or, where the soil is retentive, the roots may be lifted with large balls of earth to them, and be placed in a cool greenhouse well up to the light. It would, however, be a mistake to adopt this plan where the soil is loose, and during the lifting operation will fall from the roots; and it is also a mistake to expect flowers from newly-planted roots. Where its fine bloom is required at Christmas, good roots should have been planted fully a year previously. Doubtless many an amateur will herein recognise his failing point when expecting Christmas Roses from roots planted only a month before, and sometimes less. True, the buds are there, and fine ones, too, perhaps, but the plants, unless transferred with a good ball, suffer a check which it will take at least a year to outgrow. It is a good plan to grow this flower in good-sized pots, which should be plunged in a shady part of the garden all the year, with the exception of the blooming period; but even with pots well grown and showing plenty of buds, the mistake is often made of suddenly placing them in heat, immediately over hot pipes or flues, the heat from which shrivels the buds and foliage too. Though the Hellebores are amongst our best flowers for forcing, it should be done gently in an atmosphere constantly kept humid.

As a cut bloom, the Christmas Rose vies with the eucharis and pancratium. For vase work, or used about the person, it is a flower that wins the greatest admiration, and it is no unusual thing for cut flowers to last indoors quite a fortnight.

H. n. angustifolius (narrow-leaved Hellebore) has smaller flowers than the type. The divisions of the leaves or leaflets are narrower, whence its name. The foliage is of a pale or apple green, whereas that of the type is very dark. It was introduced in the same year as its reputed parent. As a foliage plant it is very handsome, the leaves bending gracefully, and the whole specimen having a neat appearance.

Helleborus Niger MaximusFigure left - Helleborus Niger Maximus.

H. n. maximus is the largest Christmas Rose, and is a truly grand variety; the flowers are 4in. and 5in. across. The illustration is one-fourth natural size. The scapes are very stout, and produce several flowers, which are held well above the foliage; like those of the type, they, too, are tinted with a pink colour, which passes away when the flowers are a week or so old. The foliage is remarkably bold, having thick, round, and beautifully marked stalks. Well-established specimens have a shrub-like effect, being nearly 2ft. high, and richly furnished to the ground. The half-blown buds of this variety are exquisitely beautiful, and vary somewhat in form according to their age; some resemble a nearly blown tulip, and others a rosebud. As buttonholes, backed with a frond of maidenhair, they are charming. A whole scape, having one fully-blown flower and several buds, is the most perfect and beautiful decoration imaginable for a lady's hair. This variety is at its best in the month of December, being a little earlier than the typical form.

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Helleborus Niger

All these kinds should be grown in moist and rather shady quarters; under trees not too densely foliaged will suit them; the soil should be a deep rich loam. I may mention that all my Hellebores are grown under "nurses," i.e., suitable small trees. I use walnut. About eighteen species and varieties are planted under six small trees, 4ft. high. The reasons why I use walnut are, that they leaf late in spring and lose their leaves early in autumn, so affording the greater amount of light during the flowering time of the Hellebores, and screening them in summer from the sun with their ample but not over thick foliage; a cut under the trees once a year with a sharp spade keeps them dwarf and prevents their making too many strong roots. Without saying that Hellebores should be grown in this way, it will serve to show how they may be conveniently shaded. Nothing could well look more happy under such treatment, and, once properly planted, they give no further trouble than a mulching of rotten manure in spring, when all the kinds have finished flowering. Christmas Roses are easily raised from seed, provided it is sown as soon as ripe, but plants so raised are two or three years before they flower. The quicker method of increase is by division of the roots. This can only be done successfully when the old stock is in robust health. Pieces of roots taken from old and unhealthy specimens will remain in the ground for twelve months as immovable as stones, whereas the least bits of clean young growths will form nice blooming plants the first year.

Flowering period, December to March.

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