At Home in the Garden
Addictive winter hellebores
Some plants seem to go in and out of style as often as fashions, while others are always in vogue. One such group of plants is the hellebores, which can be extremely hard to find. Yet this group of perennial plants is hotter than ever in the plant world.
Four years ago if you were lucky you could find a few hellebore species available in garden centers specializing in new, unusual, or hard to find plants. Most of what was available was seedling-grown Helleborus orientalis, Lenten Rose. But because they were seedlings and not vegetatively propagated, it was always a shot in the dark what the flower would really look like unless you purchased them when in bloom.
Helleborus orientalis, Lenten Rose, and H. niger, Christmas Rose, are currently the two most common species of hellebores available in our area. There are hundreds of hybrids out there, but very few nurseries actually grow these gems. The good news is that when these hard to find plants become this popular, a lot more nurseries typically jump in and start growing them, so expect a few more varieties to become available each year.
These winter bloomers are addictive. Starting in early March you can expect to see blooms appearing and lasting for 10-12 weeks due to the cool temperatures. The flower buds are formed the summer before the winter flowering period. The most commonly available flower colors are pale white, light rose, and green, but the flower colors everyone asks for are dark rose, black, purple, yellow, and pure white.
MAKING HELLEBORES THRIVE
Hellebores are not difficult to grow but do require specific conditions to perform at their best. A moist and shaded spot is the most important factor. Areas under deciduous tree canopies seem to be the perfect spot, but trees with particularly aggressive root systems that drain the soil of moisture should be avoided. Alkaline soils are preferred but not essential to good growth and successful flowering.
The established hellebore is a very drought-tolerant plant due to the deep and expansive root system it develops.
Growing from 12-24 inches in height, depending on region and soil, this clumping perennial is more commonly 12-15 inches tall in our area. While visiting Seattle I saw a hellebore that was 24 inches tall or more: it seemed like a giant to me.
The growth habit and subtle color of the hellebore flower look their best when planted in groups or in areas where they appear naturalized to get the most spectacular show. Many of the new darker flower varieties look beautiful planted singly or in clumps of two or three, but are still best planted along a walkway or area you frequently pass during the cold, late winter and early spring months.
CARING FOR HELLEBORES
Hellebore care is a little different than with other perennials due to the flowering period. Many are evergreen or semi-evergreen with the new foliage emerging in the early spring just after flowering begins.
In the fall, maintenance includes removing any dead or diseased leaves. Black spot— a fungal disease—can be a problem for hellebores but is easily avoided with the right maintenance. You will also want to remove any leaves that are crossing over the center of the plant where the flowers will emerge, leaving a nice uniformly circular clump.
In late winter, as flowering begins, remove any additional old growth that has become diseased, tattered, or worn from the winter. This is easier to do before the new growth emerges.
This is also the time to mulch your hellebore planting if it needs it. If you are using nutrient-rich mulch, like compost or mushroom compost, no additional fertilizers are necessary. If you are using decorative mulch, a light application of a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote will be sufficient.
FINDING HELLEBORE SPECIES
It is exciting that hellebores are becoming easier to find. There are about 15 species with all different types of characteristics and habits, but the majority of hybrids in the United States are coming from only one species, Helleborus orientalis, sometimes listed as H. x hybridus, Oriental hybrids. You may find one or more from the ‘Royal Heritage’ hybrids, which produce stunning 2-inch-wide flowers in mixed, slate/smoky, purple, or white. Developed in New Zealand, the ‘Winter Joy Bouquet’ hybrids host a range of colors from creamy yellows and pale pinks to strong pinks, reds, and black. The most common of the Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, is ‘Maximus.’ This small plant boasts beautiful large white flowers.
Mail order is still your best bet for the extremely hard to find species. You may find Helleborus argutifolius, with holly-like evergreen foliage and flowers that are chartreuse with purple streaks. H. croaticus is a tall 18 inches with reddish-purple to dark violet flowers, and H. foetidus stands 18 inches with mauve to maroon flowers. Keep in mind with mail order you will be getting a very small plant that will take several years to establish, so patience is a must.