In the midst of winter, there is one plant that you will often find blooming even under a blanket of snow: the hellebore. Members of the genus Helleborus are a group of unique, winter-blooming flowers. Often called winter or Christmas roses for their hibernal blooms, or Lenten roses for those that often bloom around Lent, hellebores are the perfect way to bring color to a winter garden. Their compound leaves are palmate with the smaller leaflets each connected at a single point in a manner reminiscent of a hand—they are evergreen in all but the coldest winters, being hardy down to zone 3 or 4 depending on the species. The showy flowers come in a variety of shades, including white, grey, black, purple, red, yellow, and green. The colorful part of the flower is actually not a petal but a similar organ called a sepal. The true petals of the hellebore are much smaller and found in a whorl at the base of the yellow anthers, where they are often modified to produce nectar and attract pollinators.
Hellebores have seen both beneficial and harmful use throughout history and folklore. In ancient Greece, hellebores were known as “Black hellebore,” in contrast with white hellebores, which was actually the unrelated plant Veratrum album (false hellebore).The name Christmas Rose is a reference to the story of a girl who visited the newborn Jesus and, upon seeing the gifts others had brought, cried at her lack of a gift; the flowers sprang from her tears, and she presented them to the newborn.
- Hellebores are part of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and despite their common names, they are only very distantly related to true roses.
- Many of the hellebores at the Park are acaulescent, meaning they lack true stems. The leaves are basal, arising directly from the root system below ground, and the flowering stalks are produced in the same manner.