Most gardens often seem dismal and empty in the cold winter months. Beautiful green lawn areas have been replaced by a white covering of snow and only a few empty flowerbeds and bare branches remain of the colourful flowers and shrubs. But you don't have to do without beautiful flowers at this time of year. Hellebores, also known as Christmas roses, provide a wonderful highlight in a dormant garden. Since they are used to low temperatures, they flower from December to March and provide welcome diversion in the white garden landscape.
Hellebores originate from mountainous regions where they are usually found at altitudes of up to 1900 metres and are a protected species. Their natural habitat stretches from the eastern Alps through Germany (primarily Bavaria), Austria, Switzerland and Italy to the Northern Balkans.
Christmas roses (helleborus niger) are characterised by their saucer-shaped white - or occasionally bright pink - flowers. The silky surface of the flowers and their characteristic black roots are unmistakable. They can grow to a height of between 10 and 30 cm. All 15 varieties are extremely robust and easy to look after. They do not belong, as the name mistakenly suggests, to the rose genus, but to the buttercup family.
Literally translated, hellebore means something like 'lethal food'. This name is not random as hellebores are actually poisonous. You should therefore wash your hands after touching these plants - or even better, wear gloves when handling them. There is no need to worry about pets, however, as the plant usually does them no harm as long as they don't eat its poisonous roots. Due to their toxic effect, hellebores were also used in ancient times as a medicinal plant for treating nervous disorders and mental illness. In the ancient world, they were even used as a chemical weapon against the enemy. Mainly in rustic areas, hellebores were used as to forecast the weather for the coming year. The root extract of hellebores was also used to produce snuff and sneezing powder. Because of this, another of the many German names for the plant was coined, 'Schwarze Nieswurz', which literally means 'black sneezing root'. As hellebores flower in the winter and defy ice and snow, they have always been considered a symbol of hope.
The best garden position for hellebores is under trees which lose their leaves so that the evergreen plants get enough shade in the summer and enough sun in the winter. Hellebores are planted in the summer. Remember that they need limey soil to grow well and that the distance between the plants, which like to be planted in groups, should ideally be approximately 15 cm.
Hellebores can also be kept as indoor pot plants. However, you should put them in a big enough pot, keep them in a cool place and make sure that they don't dry out. It is advisable to buy some good quality potting compost and mix this with soil from your garden so that the plants are supplied with the best nutrients. After the plants have flowered, you can either plant hellebores out in the garden, give them a shady home on a balcony or patio or, if you want to keep them in the house, place them on a window sill with protection from direct sunlight.