The name says it all – Christmas roses. If you are a Christmas rose, or hellebore, it means you have been carefully bred to bloom for a Northern Hemisphere Christmas. Which means they should be blooming in my garden now – it's well past the winter solstice and not nearly as cold as a European winter.
And there should be lots of them. I came to love hellebores late in my gardening life. The tin-coloured, muddy purple and occasional white flowers were lower than the spiky foliage, so even when they were in bloom they were inconspicuous and from mid-summer onwards the old foliage was blistered and tracked by leaf miner and other pest problems, making them ugly for seven months of the year.
It took a friend to show me that if you picked the flowers into a small, tight nosegay, suddenly that muddy purple colour took on hues of green and silver, and was beautiful, that and if you pruned or even mowed down the old hellebore leaves in mid-spring, once the flowers had faded or been picked, the new foliage would appear bright green and … well, not gorgeous but not bad looking, either.
So I planted them, picked them, waited five years for them to be really well established before mowing them, and they repaid me with flowers. Just not mid-winter blooms, as the name promised, but spring flowers, just when every wattle and azalea in the district was glowing and gaudy. I even thought they might bloom earlier once they had been growing for a decade or so – many shrubs and perennials bloom earlier and for longer and more hardily once their roots are big and settled and happy. But they didn't.
In the meantime, breeders had been going wild with hellebores or, rather, the opposite of wild: very dedicated and disciplined breeding and cross-breeding indeed. First of all we had varieties where the flowers stood taller than the leaves, creating a garden display instead of a kitchen table one; then came creams, pinks and deep reds, then double blooms, coloured edges and even a profusion of spots, stripes and splodges that stopped short of gaudy, but could certainly be called bright. More attention was paid to the foliage to give better garden value year round as well with interestingly marbled leaves and some with a bronze cast to the leaves.
My husband does not like white flowers – for some reason he thinks it's a waste if you don't get colour for your money. So I bought red ones, just a few, as they cost more than breakfast for six with smashed avocado; and hellebores, like other perennials, multiply every year. In a decade or two, I reasoned, I'd have plenty.
I longed for some doubles, too, but the "divided" and true-to-type double reds, with white stripes and splotches were above my budget. But the catalogue offered seedlings of "their very best". No guarantee they'd grow true to type, of course, but with mum and dad both looking gorgeous, the chances of something spectacular should be high.
I bought 20 – which cost less than a single plant divided from a clump. And waited.
They grew well and bloomed the next year, every single one in the dullest tin colour possible, deeply, totally boring.
But I didn't pull them out, mostly because I couldn't be bothered. A hellebore doesn't need any work except for mowing and I had no need to harden my heart to mow this lot each spring. And they have continued to bloom boringly each spring since.
And not, repeat not (can you hear me, hellebores?) when they are supposed to, to brighten up mid-winter.
But those seedlings did put out their own seedlings. Mostly, when my flowers produce offspring, I hoik them out – a freely seeding flower's other name is weed. But the hellebores have done their reproducing discreetly, even if it's mostly in the middle of the path where we want to tread and none, so far, and I am keeping an eye on them, have spread more than half a metre from their source.
They seem to be heavy seeds that don't stick to fur or socks or be blown by the wind. And most of the next generation are red. There are even a few double whites, and some tall double tin colours, even though nothing – yet – as spectacular as I'd hoped I was buying. But they are pretty gorgeous nonetheless. Their only problem is: not yet.
Look: it's winter! It is not only winter, but the days are lengthening. If this doesn't yell, "Christmas: time to flower" to a hellebore, what will?
Unless, just possibly, the Europeans who named them Christmas rose did so more in hope than as a calendar description and theirs too don't bloom till spring. Anyway. I have reminded them. Again. They were planted to be beautiful in winter, not to add to the spectacle of spring. Listen hellebores: you should be blooming now.
And the only way to answer is to flower.
Postscript: I wrote this three days ago. And when I looked out of the living room window this morning there was a flash of red and one of white, and a definite sighting of many reddish buds. The hellebores are blooming. Kindness, do you think? Do flowers respond to being yelled at, in print? (I didn't stand in the garden and do it personally, in case the wombats got upset.)
Maybe, the old familiar wisdom is at work again: leave a tree, a shrub, a perennial for long enough, and it will bloom earlier and later, and survive a drought, a flood and possum nibbling too.
More probably, though, it's because it's rained. I never do get round to watering our Christmas roses – and that is one thing the Europeans get, some winter rain.
I need to apologise to the hellebores.
PS: Hellebores will grow in shade but bloom earlier if they get dappled light.
This is the time to:
- Plant peas, snow peas, potatoes, onion seedlings and broad beans, though you'll get a bigger crop if you can time travel backwards and plant them all in May but, lacking a time machine, plant now.Decide which of your annual annuals, i.e. which flowers will you use to fill in garden gaps this year? The only way to be sure to have mid-summer flowers is to plant at least one annual. Mostly I plant spreading petunias – and every year I tell myself I won't, it will be red Californian poppies or Bonfire Salvias if I can find them or geminate them, which I rarely can.
- Eat onions, if you did get around to planting early varieties in autumn. Try baking them whole, slowly, rubbed in olive oil, eaten with a single drop of balsamic vinegar
- Forget that the late apples are going wrinkly, and appreciate how their flavour is getting richer and more apple like.
- Eat every walnut you picked in autumn, unless the result is truly ludicrous. Walnuts turn slightly bitter during summer – they are sweetest and best within four or five months of picking.
- Enjoy camellias, while you can. Like roses and bottlebrush, you can never have enough.