The legend of the Christmas rose

Flower is a European native which has a reputation for being difficult to grow

  • Dec. 7, 2012 12:00 p.m.

Flowers are around to brighten Christmas season.

Let me start by telling you why I love living in Maple Ridge.

I was standing at the end of a rather long post office line-up the other day, when the little old lady behind me asked if I had only one letter to send.

After I answered in the affirmative, she starting rummaging through her purse, finally finding a solitary stamp and offering it to me so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. This was a perfect stranger who wouldn’t accept my money and told me to “buy myself a cup of coffee and have a nice Christmas’.”

That’s why this place feels like home.

Giving has long been a part of this season and the story of the first Christmas rose, or Helleborus niger, is an Italian legend which honours that tradition. It tells the story of the nativity and a young shepherd girl named Madelon who is woken by the singing of angels. She follows the Magi, or wise men, with the rest of the shepherds and watches as they present their spectacular gifts of Myrrh, Frankincense and gold.

Even the shepherds bring their own humble offerings of bread, dried fruit, cheese and a lamb’s fleece. But upon realizing that she has nothing to offer the baby Jesus, Madelon weeps outside the stable.

One of the angels takes pity on her and in the spot where her tears fell on the ground, creates a beautiful flower with glossy deep green leaves and pink buds that open to pure white blooms. Madelon picks a bouquet of these miracle blossoms, presenting them to Mary, and if you know anything about this spectacular winter-flowering perennial, you know it’s not too hard to believe that it’s truly a gift from heaven.

Christmas rose is a European native which has a reputation for being difficult to grow. The latter is easily solved by choosing an appropriate growing site, which begins with well-drained, humus-rich soil that is slightly alkaline. You can adjust our often acidic pH by adding a little dolomite lime to the planting hole and top-dressing annually with mushroom manure (don’t cover the foliage).

Planting under the canopy of tall deciduous trees also works well as the summer sun only peeks through in early morning or late afternoon. The mulch from the fallen leaves adds humus to the soil and this species doesn’t mind the winter exposure. The dark green leathery foliage is reliably evergreen and quite attractive, while the pure white flowers (contrasted by golden stamens) are usually borne from early January through March and fade with hints of pink, bronze or green.

The one thing Christmas Rose hates above all else is being transplanted, so find a good spot and leave it there.

As the legend alluded to, this perennial makes a great cut flower and some of the newer varieties should be able to provide a few blooms for Dec. 25th.

Here is a short list of available cultivars, all of which are Zone 4 hardy:

• Josef Lemper – very large blooms are held well above the foliage on sturdy stems, starting in early December. Grows 15-18” high.

• Double Fashion – a Dutch introduction with semi-double blooms (a nice central ruffle) and contrasting yellow stamens. Grows 12-16” high.

• Jacob – the slightly fragrant pure white blooms (fading to green with age) are very early, starting in late November. Grows 12-14” high.

• Praecox – an early-blooming and maturing cultivar (young specimens often bud) with flowers often showing around Christmas. 8-12” high.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_acer@hotmail.com).

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