Gardening should be fun and bring joy to our lives. That is why I am always happy to discover a new group of plants that thrive in our climate, grow beautifully without a lot of fuss, and that don’t attract the attention hungry deer looking for the salad bar. Allow me to share one of my favorites….
There are more than twenty species of Helleborus, nearly all native to Europe, the Mediterranean region, or the Middle East. Hellebore flowers may resemble small roses, but the plants belong to different families. Helleborus species belong to the buttercup, or Ranunculaceae family.
Most hellebores bloom in shades of white, cream, pink, peach, lilac, burgundy, or dark purple, though some flowers are a light, creamy green. Many have “freckles” on their faces. While most are singles, some varieties are doubles with intricate patterns of petals and showy stamens. Hellebore blossoms are only fully appreciated when viewed up close because most cultivars hold their blossoms facing downwards. One must come in close and lift each blossom to see its face.
Cut, hellebores last for a long time in the vase. One of the few cut flowers we can grow here in Zone 7b during the winter, they work well in arrangements with early daffodils and forced flowering branches of shrubs or fruit trees.
Most hellebores commonly available in our area will be H. orientalis, the Lenten rose; H. niger, the Christmas rose; or Helleborus x hybridus, all of which are hardy in zones 5-8. As with many heritage perennials, the original species have been heavily hybridized to produce countless different combinations of form and color. While most of the species’ flowers are single and cup shaped, many of the hybrids are fully double, and many have beautiful markings on their leaves.
You may be lucky enough to locate H. foetidus, the bearsfoot or stinking hellebore, which has deeply divided leaves and green flowers edged in red. It is a mountain species, preferring sweet soil, and grows well in dry shade. It is taller than many other species and draws attention.
One of the prettiest hellebores, with variegated foliage, is H. argutifolius ‘Snow Fever.’ Its new leaves and flower buds emerge tipped in pink. Its creamy flowers have a cast of light green. It is native to Corsica and is hardy to at least Zone 8. Several named cultivars of H. argutifolius appear on the market occasionally, but they can be hard to find.
Many older homes in our neighborhood have established clumps of evergreen hellebores blooming from January through April or May. Suddenly, there are delicate pink and white petals emerging in the depths of winter. I asked a new friend about them soon after we moved to Williamsburg, and she generously gave me trays full of seedling plants when she thinned hers that spring. What a gift!
Hellebores are popular in our neighborhood because deer never graze them. Every part of a Helleborus plant is poisonous, from flower to root. This means they won’t be nibbled by rabbits, moles, voles or deer. Alkaloids in the plant irritate the mouth and skin, causing many harmful effects if eaten. It is wise to wear gloves when planting hellebores, trimming their leaves, or cutting their flowers, if you have sensitive skin.
Hellebores begin their new growth in early winter, sending up fresh new leaves and flower buds under cover of sturdy, evergreen leaves left standing from the previous season. These thick, protective leaves offer cover from freezing temperatures, snow, ice, and winter winds.
Although they may begin to look a bit ragged by February, hellebore leaves are still vibrantly green, despite the cold. Cut the old leaves away so that the dazzling jewel like buds of the new season’s flowers finally shine. Within just a few days of removing the cover of old leaves, light reaches the new growth, causing it to lengthen and coaxing the buds to open. New flowers and leaves will soon fill out the display.
Early native bees will find them on warm days. Some of the earliest insect activity in our garden each spring buzzes around the hellebores. Hellebores produce good quality nectar and pollen, sustaining many insects when little else is in bloom.
Each pollinated flower produces viable seeds, which fall in early summer and germinate near the parent plants. Some gardeners clip the stems of faded flowers before seeds mature to prevent the germination of new plants.
Hellebores allowed to set seed will spread a bit year by year to form a good ground cover in shady areas. While we don’t expect seedling hellebores to reproduce the flowers of an expensive hybrid, the flowers which do develop may be a pleasant surprise. There are so many seedlings from a mature plant that there will be plenty to generously share with gardening friends and to expand your own collection.
Transplant seedlings to pots or to new planting beds where they have space to grow. Mature plants usually spread to 18”-24”, depending on the variety. Hellebores will bloom in their third or fourth year.
Hellebores may be a little more expensive than other perennials at the nursery because they are sold in bloom, and so are already mature. Most of the hellebores available at nurseries are patented hybrids and named selections. Individual plants may sell for $25.00 or more. Planting seedling plants from a friend is a far more affordable way to get started.
Use hellebore plants to protect areas from vole tunneling, since voles won’t tunnel through their roots. Their large leaves and thick roots also hold soil on slopes. Although they look unremarkable during much of the year, their winter and early spring flowers make them well worth the effort. Plant several different varieties to enjoy Helleborus flowers from December through May.
Hellebores enjoy winter and spring sunshine, but they appreciate the leafy canopy of trees during the summer. They grow well in partial shade under large shrubs or deciduous trees. Many hellebores are drought tolerant, but the plants may need watering during dry spells for the first year or two if planted under trees or large shrubs. Thirsty tree roots often grow up into plantings and rob the perennials of moisture during dry weather. Mulch and supplemental watering help, though hellebores require good drainage.
Mix hellebores with ferns, mosses, flowering bulbs, Hostas, Epimediums, Ajuga, Brunnera, and other shade loving perennials. Once past their bloom, their leaves will form a solid backdrop for other plants throughout the summer.
You may also plant hellebores in pots during the winter, with Violas or evergreen ferns, in full to part sun locations. Move, or transplant potted hellebores to shady areas before the middle of May, so the plant isn’t burned by the summer sun. Use a large pot, or transplant into the garden in late spring, as they resent having their roots pot bound.
Hellebores are another heritage plant which continue year to year with little effort from the gardener. Trimming their old leaves, keeping them watered, and feeding once or twice each year with compost or other organic mulch is all they really require, when planted in a favorable spot in the garden.
They reward this small effort with lovely jewel like flowers when we most need them, during these last few frosty weeks of late winter and earliest spring.
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