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Hellebores, tolerant and colorful

  • Diane Lynch
  • I’ve been a fan of hellebores since I moved to my current house 19 years ago. They’re great in my shady front garden. Hellebores are easy to grow, need little water once established, flower at the end of winter, and are deer-proof. It doesn’t get much better than that.

    They will grow in sun with a little protection in hot areas, or dappled shade, and come into bloom in December and January with flowers that last until May. They come in a rainbow of dazzling colors ranging from blackish purple to lemon yellow, and shades in between, including weirdly wonderful mixes of pink, yellow and purple with spots and colorful edges.

    Hellebores are remarkably tolerant of varying conditions. They thrive all over the country, and seem to only resent boggy conditions or too much hot summer sun. In warm summer areas planting under deciduous trees so they get sun in the winter months and shade in the hot months can work well. They also tolerate many soil types and, after established, don’t need a tremendous amount of water, a boon for our always drought-stricken area. However, first year water is essential so the substantial root system will develop. They’ll even hybridize among themselves in your garden under the right conditions.

    Botanically speaking, hellebores are interesting. Their “petals” are really sepals (as are hydrangea and clematis) and come in singles and frilly doubles, and some species have adorable fuzzy yellow nectaries in the center, which secrete nectar to attract early pollinators. Because their petals are actually sepals, the covering over a flower bud, they cling to the plant longer, thus the long bloom time.

    Helleborus x hybridus, which are sometimes called orientalis, are a complex genetic mix of about 19 varieties and have been known to live a century, more than most of us. Their nodding flowers are oriented downward to protect the pollen from spring rains, giving them a charming bashful quality.

    Hellebores are mostly native to Eastern Europe and from the Rannuculaceae or buttercup family, which also includes clematis and peonies. They have common names such as Christmas rose and Lenten rose, a nod to the time of year they bloom, but are unrelated to the rose family. All are low growing and some, particularly the Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius or corsicus, grow into small shrubs as they can exceed 3 feet wide. Because they don’t grow huge, they are a great low-maintenance choice for small gardens, especially when you include the wonderful fact that they are poisonous and therefore repugnant to deer. All have nice foliage that adds interest to the garden in the months when they are out of bloom.

    I’m particularly fond of Helleborus foetidis, which has no detectable odor, unlike what the name suggests. It has lacy, delicate foliage and small, long lasting lime green blooms. It’s a short-lived perennial, and my largest one died last spring but left behind a couple of seedlings, which will bloom in the coming years — free plants.

    Be aware that nurseries usually stock small hellebores, typically gallons, which are pricey. And they can take a couple of years of growing roots to bloom, so they aren’t for impatient gardeners, unless you’re willing to spend some serious change for larger specimens. But they should be available at this time of year, with some nice little forced blooms. I have one I bought in the grocery store a couple of years ago that is still settling in and continues to need more water than the others.

    Oh yes, hellebores are good cutting flowers als.! Stem ends should be dipped for several seconds in boiling water or flamed quickly before adding to an arrangement. Or cut with a short stem and float in a bowl for two weeks of enjoyment.

    If you’ve never had any hellebores, give them a try. It’s unlikely you will be disappointed.