2010-03-18 / Features

Nothing Boring About Hellebores

The Potting Shed
By Carole McCray

Hellebore Winter Jewels 'Berry Swirl' Hellebore Winter Jewels 'Berry Swirl' Harbingers of spring. That’s how I think of hellebores. Emerging through the last of winter’s blanket of snow, the popular flowers known as the Christmas rose and Lenten rose will give the most fair-weather gardener a reason to seek these late season bloomers during a winter thaw. They are a much-appreciated floral display during the colder months.

The name, hellebore, is derived from the Greek “bora” meaning food and “hellein” meaning poison. Even though all the parts of the plant are poisonous, the stunning flowers on hellebores cancel the poison factor of the plant.

The Christmas rose

Don’t be misled by its name. H. niger, the Christmas rose, generally will not bloom for Christmas, but should be blooming in the late winter or early spring and can continue to bloom through April and May. It appears as a single rose, and its white flowers tinged in pink are surrounded by a 12-to 16- inch mass of smooth evergreen foliage. Once established, the high humidity and heat can be a problem later in the year.

Carole McCray Carole McCray The Lenten rose

Bloom time depends on the severity of the winter season. In late winter or early spring, the Lenten Rose can brighten a winter garden. H.orientalis, the Lenten rose, forms a clump to 2 inches wide by 15 inches tall of thick evergreen leaves. In late winter, the tall flower spikes emerge from the underground rhizome. As the flower spike tops the leaves, it branches to produce a cluster of flowers three inches in diameter. The flower shades are what excite collectors of hellebores. From black purple to red purple, to white, pink and even yellow, the patterns on the blooms are what make the flower so dramatic, some with rose-colored speckles on cup-shaped blooms.

A green-flowered Hellbore

H. argutifolius, known as Corsican hellebore, is a hardy plant in a Zone 6. A good garden plant, its bloom time is generally from February through April. Its creamy light green, open-shaped flowers can open to two inches in diameter.

Hellebores in your garden

Sometimes hellebores can begin blooming in early winter and will still be flowering till late spring. The shiny evergreen leaves are another attraction of the plant. Because of their toxicity, hellebores are not surprisingly deer-resistant garden plants for areas where wildlife abounds.

Hellebores adapt exceedingly well in acidic woodland soil. Too much moisture and poor drainage are not ideal conditions for growing hellebores. Plant hellebores from March through September in a humus-rich, well-drained soil. Good spots are in light shade under trees and shrubs. The winter sun will not harm them, but in summer, give them some partial shade. Where winters are harsh, add light organic mulch; snow is another good insulator to weather the cold winter conditions.

Gardening suggestions for hellebores:

Plant as a background to any low-growing ground cover.

Underplant them beneath shrubs like azaleas or rhododendrons.

Plant as a backdrop for your delicate spring bulbs like snowdrops, grape hyacinths, crocuses and Siberian squills.

As filler once hellebores are finished blooming, use plants with feathery foliage such as bleeding hearts or astilbes to camouflage hellebores’ lingering foliage.

Divide hellebores in the spring. The Corsician hellebore does not need divided for years. Its seedlings can be transplanted.

Hellebores self-sow prolifically. When planting from seed, plants will take one to three years to produce blooms.

Though still somewhat unfamiliar to many plant enthusiasts, you might have to look long and hard to find hellebores. Once you do, hellebores will put you on alert, waiting and looking for their blooms to defy a mid-winter thaw.

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