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GARDENING

It's Not Necessarily Bad When a Rose Is Not a Rose

March 01, 1997|From Associated Press

Just a few spells of mild weather and Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), also known as winter rose--or hellebore--opens its buds to reveal 2-inch-wide, waxy, white blossoms.

Threadlike, yellow stamens protrude from the center of each blossom. The flowers are long-lasting, and as they mature, the petals of some plants become flushed pale pink or purple. Not bad for a flower that blooms December to April.

True roses are in the genus Rosa, which are not even distant relatives to Christmas roses. Besides vaguely roselike flowers, the Christmas rose sports something that true roses lack: attractive, dark evergreen (or nearly so) foliage. The flowers make nice bouquets indoors.

The plant grows as a clump, with each leafstalk rising right up out of the ground, and each stalk capped at 18-inch height by seven to nine glossy, dark-green leaflets. It is poisonous ("hellebore" derives from the Greek words "helein" and "bora," meaning, respectively, "to injure" and "food") and in the past was used as an insecticide.

Christmas rose leaves scorch easily from insufficient moisture, the result of direct sunlight, dry soil or wind. A site beneath trees and shrubs can provide needed wind protection and shade. Make the soil well-drained and water-holding by enriching it with an abundance of peat, compost, leaves or other organic materials.

Christmas rose is slow to establish in a new home, but, once in place, it spreads slowly and never needs further attention.

If you have patience, start plants from seed. Sow the seeds in a flowerpot, water the pot, then put it into a plastic bag and into the refrigerator for two months.

After two months, the seeds may germinate if given warmth. Or they might need to be held at room temperature for a couple of months followed by another two-month stint in the refrigerator. Even after all this treatment, germination might take a few months. Seedling plants begin to flower after about three years.

Aside from buying a potted plant from a nursery, you can also get a "start" from an established plant. In early September, dig out a piece of plant from the side of the clump, taking with it some leaves and roots. (Pack some humusy soil back into the hole you made next to the original clump; established Christmas roses resent any disturbance of their roots.)

Replant the cut piece at its new home, covering the roots with 1 inch of soil and watering well. To protect the plant from drying until new roots grow, surround the whole plant for a month with a bottomless, topless box having a pane of clear glass or plastic over its top.

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