Nope, this isn't a real rose we're discussing today; those tender beauties will wait until the warmth of June to unfurl their scented glory.

Instead, let's chat about Helleborus niger, aka the Christmas rose, a stalwart herbaceous perennial which blooms in winter. Really! It's in bloom right now.

And though its flowers do resemble those of a wild rose, it's a member of the buttercup family and its picturesque name comes from a hoary legend telling of a poor girl with no gift to give the Christ child. The hellebore flowers sprouted in the snow from her tears.

For the first time ever, I spotted the Christmas rose for sale as a decorative potted plant this past holiday season. Given Helleborus niger's propensity for cold-weather bloom, it seemed appropriate for it to join the poinsettia, amaryllis and Christmas cactus as a holiday harbinger.

But it's just as lovely outside, such as in Nicole Griswold's charming Bethel garden. Her heritage Christmas rose, originally a pass-along plant from her grandmother, begins to bloom in November and often continues until March. Though it may be buried by snow at times, it always emerges relatively unscathed during thaws. A worthy plant indeed!

This upright, (12 to 18 inches) semi-evergreen perennial is increasingly popular, for good reason. It bears its copious large, bowl-shaped flowers in loose clusters, surrounded by leathery, dark green, toothed leaves.

The yellow-centered blossoms launch white, and age to salmon-pink. Hardy in zones 4 through 8, the Christmas rose prefers a sloping, partially-shaded site, or a spot under deciduous trees where they'll receive some winter sun.

For best results, protect it from strong winds, which would batter the tender blooms. At planting time provide a deep, fertile, well-draining bed and don't stint on the compost. Place the plants 12 to 15 inches apart and remember to carefully remove tattered leaves in subsequent early springs to allow for new growth.

Native to central and southern Europe, long-blooming hellebores are basically an alpine or woodland plant, and unlike many of our perennials, they desire alkaline soil.

A traditional cottage garden favorite, hellebores are insect and pest free, as well as drought tolerant. Deer shun them, and they make lovely cut flowers; snip off the flower head and float in a bowl of water for a sophisticated display.

Propagate by division in late spring, after flowering. Dig up the clump, divide with a sharp knife, replant and water well. The Christmas rose may also self-sow, but the offspring will seldom appear exactly like the parent.

Shop for the Christmas rose at Plant Delight, the North Carolina nursery run by famed plantsman Tony Avent, (, at White Flower Farm ( or at your local independent nursery.

A word of caution. Helleborus niger contains a toxin which can cause eye irritation and gastroenteritis. Do not consume and be careful when handling. Two other minor downsides ... it can be quite slow-growing and tends to be a bit pricey.

Despite its few drawbacks, the Christmas rose will keep gardeners rapt all winter, at least until its cousin, the Lenten rose shows her pretty purple face. If you have a shady slope, it may be time to adorn it with the delicate, divine Christmas rose.

Garden communicator Colleen Plimpton writes about, lectures on, coaches and teaches gardening. Visit her web site and sign up for her gardening newsletter at