Plants of the season part 2: the Christmas rose


In Europe, the Christmas rose (helleborus niger) is considered one of the most traditional and noble seasonal plants of the Christmas season, but it comes with its fair share of confusion.

The Christmas rose, ironically, is not even a rose but a member of the buttercup family. It gets its common name from its resemblance to wild roses with its large, flat flowers on short stems and it produces white and occasionally pink flowers standing around 9-12 inches in height.

Its natural habitat can be found up in the mountainous regions of Switzerland, Bavarian Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and Croatia, but can grow in any well-drained garden soil and is hardy even in the most shaded of areas.

The Christmas rose is another plant that is steeped in history, tradition and folklore. The plant is heavily associated with Christianity and the birth of Christ through a little shepherd named Madelon. The legend goes that Madelon was tending to her sheep one cold and wintry night. Three wise men and a group of shepherds passed by. The wise men were bearing gifts including frankincense, gold and myrrh and the shepherds bearing fruits, nuts and doves. Madelon became saddened that she didn’t have any gift for the newborn and began to weep. An angel looking down saw Madelon’s tears and came down to her aid. The angel brushed away the snow to reveal a beautiful white flower with tips of pink for her to give the infant — our Christmas rose. A lovely legend of the spirit of Christmas for a beautiful flower.

Botanically, Christmas rose is classified in the plant family ranunculacae, the buttercup family. The scientific name, helleborus, derives from the Greek name for H. orientalis “helleboros elein” to injure and “bora” food. Niger refers to the black color of the roots of the Christmas rose plant.

The Christmas rose is an evergreen rhizomatous perennial and flowers from December through April — the season when snow is melting leaving open spots for the first plants to grow. By the end of and during the flowering season, part of the old leaves die and new ones begin to grow.

Even though the Christmas rose is steeped in folklore and displays a beautiful flower, the entire plant is also highly toxic. Some of the compounds contained in plants found in the ranunculaceae family include cardiac glycosides bufadienole hellebrin, saponins and ranunculosides. All parts of the plant contain some or all of these toxins and can be a hazard to both humans and animals and should be kept out of reach of children and pets.

Other toxic holiday plants

Holly (ilex aquifolium) — The holly plant has evergreen leaves that are dark and shiny and display bright red berries that are popular in holiday decorating. The plant contains several glycosides and theobromine, which affects the heart. The red berries are also toxic and, when eaten in great numbers, can cause persistent vomiting and diarrhea.

Mistletoe (viscum album) — Mistletoe is a partial parasitic plant growing on many types of trees and its degree of toxicity can vary depending on the host tree. The toxic compounds found in mistletoe are proteins viscotoxin A and B and the leaves and stems are said to be more toxic than the white decorative berries. Reactions following mistletoe ingestion are variable and serious reactions are rare, however, fatal poisonings have been reported both for humans and pets.

Poinsettia (euphorbia pulcherrima) — Poinsettias are used as Christmas decorations because of their very colorful bracts located just beneath the actual small flowers. The milky sap, characteristic of plants in this Euphorbiaceae family, contains poisonous diterpene esters that are persistent even when dried. Poinsettias are often mentioned to be highly toxic, however, recent studies have failed to show toxic effects.

CPR and first aid classes

CPR and first aid certification classes are now being offered monthly by the CSU Extension office on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m. Anyone needing to receive or renew certification can register by calling the Extension office at 264-5931.

We will also attempt to schedule classes on additional dates with five or more registrations. Cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for CPR, first aid or recertification. The type of first aid information provided will vary by the needs of the audience.