Community Garden before Community Garden after
WHITESTONE GARDENING CLUB - DECEMBER 2023
Christmas is coming, and all being well our Christmas Rose should be flowering soon. Indeed, as I write this in mid-November I can already see some fat white
flower-buds nestling underneath the spreading
dark-green leathery leaves. But Christmas Rose does not do well with us, possibly because I haven't put it in the right place. I am loth to move it, though, as it is said to resent such disturbance. It likes it best in moist,
humus-rich alkaline soil in dappled shade, and I think that the place where our plant is growing is too dry and too sunny for it - besides which the soil is neutral rather than alkaline. At least our plant does flower, and seems
reasonably healthy, but it doesn't spread at all, unlike its cousin the Lenten Rose which grows vigorously with us and seeds itself prolifically.
Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is not really a rose, although the flowers look superficially like those of a white single-flowered rose. Rather, along with the Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis and hybrids), it is a hellebore, belonging to the buttercup family, and like most members of that family - including many popular garden subjects such as clematis, anemones, delphiniums, and, most dangerous of all, monkshoods - it is highly poisonous. It is native to the mountains of southern Europe; I have only once seen it in the wild, in the mountains above Ferlach in the south of Austria, though since this was in summer, only its leaves were to be seen, not the flowers. To see it flowering I would have had to be there in winter.
What other plants are named for Christmas? In the European flora, there are none, as far as I am aware. But there is a cactus, Schlumbergera, commonly grown in this country as a house plant, and known as the Christmas Cactus since that is when it flowers. Unlike the more conventional spiny cactuses, this has a drooping habit, with masses of flattened, winged stem segments which readily come apart and can be used to propagate the plant; and around Christmas time, if it is happy, it will produce masses of showy crimson flowers, weighing the stems down so that if you have it in a pot on a window-ledge it's a good idea to raise the pot up on some sort of stand so that the flowers have space to hang free. In the wild, in the coastal mountains of south-eastern Brazil, it grows on trees and rocks where no doubt the flowers can hang down freely to be accessible to the hummingbirds which pollinate them. In Brazil it does not flower at Christmas but in May, for which reason it is known as the "Mayflower" (Flor de Maio), A related cactus, Rhipsalidopsis, also from Brazil, flowers later as a houseplant in this country and is appropriately known as the Easter Cactus. It is less easy to grow than the Christmas one.
Like the Christmas Cactus, most plants with Christmas in their name come from the southern hemisphere, where Christmas is, of course, a midsummer festival. In south-eastern Australia, for example, there is a small tree, Prostanthera lasianthus, belonging to the mint family, with aromatic leaves and showy clusters of white trumpet flowers with purple and orange spots in the throat. In Victoria it is in flower at Christmas time and is accordingly called the Victorian Christmas Bush. I have seen it in the wild in Victoria but I do not recall ever having seen it in cultivation here. It is hardy down to minus five degrees so it should be possible to grow it in the milder parts of Britain, probably against a south-facing wall, with added frost-protection in winter. There is a somewhat hardier relative of this plant, the Alpine Mint Bush (Prostanthera cuneata), which I have also seen growing wild in Victoria. This too flowers at Christmas time in its native land. It has even more highly scented foliage, and similar but larger and showier flowers. We grew it for a number of years when we lived in Exeter, where it did well once it had settled down, flowering in May and June; but it was not practicable to bring it with us when we moved, and I neglected to take any cuttings. I have not so far tried it here in Nadderwater, though I have a mind to do so as it is a most attractive plant.
Another Australian Christmas plant, this time from the west of that continent, is Blandfordia grandiflora, known as Christmas Bells. Stamp collectors might recognise it as featuring on an old pre-decimalisation 1/6d Australian stamp. It has showy clusters of drooping tubular flowers, red with yellow tips, raised on upright straight stems arising from tufts of narrow grasslike leaves. Botanically Blandfordia is not closely related to any other plants and is therefore placed in its own family, the Blandfordiaceae. I understand that it is a popular garden subject in Australia, though I have never knowingly seen it over here. The name Christmas Bells has also been applied to some other, quite unrelated plants. I was excited to discover that there is something called the New Zealand Christmas Bells, which is grown as a popular ornamental over there, but it turns out that this isn't a native kiwi plant at all, but a garden escape that is regarded as quite invasive. It is in fact Alstroemeria psittacina, from South America, and thus a close relative of the alstroemerias often grown in English gardens under the name of Peruvian Lilies - though I have to admit that, for some reason that I can't quite pin down, I don't like them very much!
There are more Christmas Bells in South Africa, where the name is applied to a plant called Sandersonia aurantiaca. It belongs to the same family (Colchicaceae) as the Autumn Crocus, or Colchicum, and like that species it contains a compound called colchicine, which in small doses has been used as a treatment for gout but in larger doses is highly toxic and has been known to cause fatalities in humans. It has numerous orange-yellow flowers like tiny Chinese lanterns borne on thin wiry stalks arising from the leaf axils, and appears to be a striking and attractive plant, though i must admit that I have never seen it and had never even heard of it before preparing this article. It is cultivated as a garden plant in milder climates that ours; if you wanted to try growing it in the UK it would probably best be treated as a conservatory plant. For my part, I will be happy if our Christmas Rose puts on a good display this year - and I would be interested to hear if anyone in this area has had better success with it than we have.