Pictured above: Hellebores add much-needed winter interest to the garden— even snow can’t smother their beauty | Susan Tito photo
By Susan Tito
If you’ve planned your garden well, you probably had early-blooming flowers such as crocus and snowdrops already make a welcome appearance.
Don’t get me wrong, these plants are essential for kicking off the growing season, but if I had to name a must-have late winter/early spring plant, I’d pick one that many people don’t know too much about.
Say hello to hellebores!
What’s so special about hellebores? Glad you asked!
Are you looking for a plant that is mostly evergreen during winter, fairly deer resistant, frost and drought tolerant, and best of all, has gorgeous, long-lasting jewel-like blooms?
If so, hellebores check off all these boxes — and more.
Commonly known as the Christmas rose or Lenten rose (depending on when they flower), hellebores have a bit of an image problem. That’s because nurseries generally don’t open for business until after this beauty has finished blooming. Sadly, most people never see these plants in their full glory.
Aside from plant lovers, those who still get nursery catalogs probably have seen pictures of hellebores, but how many people do you know actually grow them?
Thankfully, there’s a few of us out there (and I hope after reading this column, many more join our ranks).
Erika Shank, a founding member of The Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons, is a proud hellebore enthusiast who grows several species in her Amagansett, New York, garden.
“Hellebores are a very old group of fascinating plants,” she said. “They are delightful and cheerful in winter, have exquisite shapes and colors, and show us the promise of spring.”
I couldn’t agree more. I, too, grow several species, but unfortunately, I have them in an area that is not visible from my house. Because these plants bloom at a time of year when most people stay inside, you’ll want to site your plants where you can see them through a window or near your front door.
So, what do these beauties require to thrive?
“Hellebores like moderate shade, especially an area shaded by deciduous trees, with full sun when they flower, and protection from summer heat,” said Ms. Shank. “The only soil type they don’t like is a soggy, wet one.”
Bottom line: Assuming you don’t live in a cranberry bog, you can probably grow hellebores.
Two common species are Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, and Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten rose. Vigorous interbreeding between them has produced an array of hybrids with lovely single and double blooms.
“Through breeding programs in England, Holland and the United States, today’s hybrids offer a large variety of color and form,” said Ms. Shank, who grows a number of unnamed hybrids in hues of deep rose to dark plum that she obtains from Sunshine Farms and Gardens, a breeder of hellebores in West Virginia, along with some named varieties.
Among her favorites: Helleborus foetidus, known as the stinking hellebore, which, despite its unflattering name (due to the unpleasant fragrance of its leaves when crushed), features deeply divided foliage and striking chartreuse bell-shaped flowers that bloom from December to June.
Other good choices are from the Winter Jewels Series, such as ‘Onyx Odyssey,’ which is among the best double black hellebore strain on the market.
One characteristic of many hellebores is their typically downward-facing flowers. This wouldn’t be a problem if you were the size of, say, a leprechaun, but for the rest of us regular-sized folk, it’s not always easy to appreciate just how beautiful hellebores are when the flowers face away from you. Fret not, because there are ways to enjoy this plant.
Some people plant hellebores in raised flower beds, on slopes or hillsides, or in containers. If you go the container route, be sure to select one with a wide rim and sufficient drainage holes. The advantage of a container is that you can move the plant around, keeping it closer to the house while in bloom then moving it to a semi-shaded location in the summer.
You can also use hellebores as a table decoration by cutting the blooms and floating them in a shallow bowl.
There are some varieties that have more upward-facing flowers than most, such as ‘Ivory Prince’ and ‘HGC Pink Frost.’ Do your research and you will discover just how many varieties there are. Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler (Timber Press, 2006) is an excellent book that will tell you everything you need to know about these beautiful plants.
Here’s hoping that you’ll be as hellbent as I am on adding hellebores to your garden!
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.