The holidays bring with them a wealth of traditions. Culinary delights, seasonal decorations and family gatherings all take on special meaning during this season of celebration. Plants too are part of the holidays and have been for centuries.

Two plants, in particular, are associated with the Christmas season, the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and the Winter Rose (Euphorbia pulcherrima aka poinsettia). Both plants have similar holiday legends attributed to them. Madelon, a country girl visiting the Christ Child is forlorn because she has no gift to bring but an angel brings her outside, touches the ground and forth springs the first Christmas rose (Hellebore), her humble gift.

In the second legend, a poor Mexican girl named Pepita had no gift to bring to baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin tried to comfort her by telling her that even the smallest gift if given with love would make Jesus happy. She made a small bouquet out of some weeds and when she entered the church and laid them at the altar, they turned into bright red flowers. Church goers were sure they witnesses a miracle and to this day poinsettias are known as the ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’ or ‘Flores de Noche Buena’. 

Over the past decade or so, hellebores have been a horticultural hit. They are indigenous to mountainous regions in southern and central Europe and typically found on chalky, stony clay soils. There are about 20 species of evergreen or herbaceous hellebores. They can be found in colors ranging from white to cream, green, and pink to purple. Newer introductions have expanded the range of pinks and purples and introduced doubles, bicolors, spotted blossoms and variegated foliage.

Hellebores come in a wide color range. Photo by dmp, 2008

All hellebores are poisonous containing cardiac glycosides, saponins and ranunculosides. In fact the Latin name of the species known as the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, comes from the Greek ‘elein’ meaning ‘to injure’ and ‘bora’ meaning ‘food’. Niger refers to the black color of its roots. Despite being poisonous, this plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb to cure mental disorders, intestinal worms, convulsions, tumors and various other ailments.

In its native habitat, the Christmas rose blooms from December to April, its buds opening as snow melts around its planting site. Here bloom times are also weather dependent with earlier blossoming during milder winters. Plants reach about a foot in height.

Helleborus niger sending up buds 12/28/21 in East Hartford. Photo by Louise Carroll, 2021

Hellebores in general do best in partially shaded sites with moderately moist soils. They can tolerate full sun but I find they need water on a regular basis or they do not grow much. Plan on planting hellebores in groups of 3 to 7 plants for a nice show. Plants spread slowly by rhizomes and seed. While not plant is 100 percent deer resistant, hellebores are usually not bothered by deer and other herbivores.

When happy, hellebores slowly form good sized patches. Photo by dmp, 2012.

Evergreen hellebores tend to look a bit ragged coming out of the winter and some leaves may need to be trimmed when new ones start to emerge. There are two basic groups of hellebores – those that have leaves on stems (caulescent) and those like the Christmas rose that have some leafy bracts on flower stalks but otherwise basal leaves (acaulescent). What most people associate with the alluring flowers are 5 petal-like sepals which surround a ring of yellow nectaries which are modified petals that hold nectar. The sepals last for months although their color fades. Leave them on the plants as they are thought to contribute to the development of seeds.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are beloved holiday plants and just like the hellebore, the colorful part of the plant that most associate with the blossoms are actually modified leaves called bracts. The real flowers are the small, yellow, bud-like structures in the middle called cyathias. There have been rumors about the poinsettia being poisonous but it is not. The white, latex sap, however, may produce skin irritations for some people.  

Poinsettia ‘Christmas Confetti’ bred by Bob Shabot, UConn. Photo by dmp, 2009

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, first brought the poinsettia to the states in 1825. It was a tall lanky plant that tended to drop its leaves but produced these beautiful red bracts in the winter. It was not until almost 100 years later when Paul Ecke of California developed a poinsettia that could be successfully grown as a houseplant. Now more than 34 million poinsettias are sold each year.

Breeders have expanded the color range to include pinks, creams, salmons, yellows, whites and bicolors. Some have touches of bronze and cinnamon. One of the Paul Ecke Ranch’s more recent introductions is the Winter Rose™ series of multi-petaled poinsettias. They were developed by Franz Fruehwirth who retired in 2000 after 38 years as a breeder for Ecke.

Poinsettia ‘Golden Glo’. Photo by dmp, 2021.

The first Winter Rose™ was a dark red and it was released in 2003. Each colored bract is puckered and inward curly looking like a rose in full bloom from a distance. After Winter Rose™ Dark Red was introduced, followed wonderful cultivars in light and dark pink, cream, yellow and most recently a cultivar called ‘Marble’ with soft pink bracts tipped in cream.

One of the outstanding features of the Winter Rose™ series is that the plant look great for many weeks, even months. Since this series has smaller leaves and reduced leaf area as compared to other types of poinsettias, it has a lower water requirement so forgetting to water plants occasionally is not as detrimental to them.

Winter Rose poinsettia. Photo by dmp, 2009

Poinsettias as a rule enjoy bright, indirect light, temperatures in the 60s F and enough water so that pots are moist but not overly wet. Often pots come wrapped in decorative foil. Make sure pots can drain well either by removing the foil and setting the plant in a saucer or by making holes in the foil to allow excess water to drain away. Keep poinsettias away from drafts and heat sources and they will look good until Valentine’s Day when you just might receive a bouquet of real roses.

Happy Holidays!

Dawn P.