Garden writers in cold winter climates often warm themselves in January and February by rhapsodizing about topics like good garden “bones”, shrubs with bright berries, and the enduring appeal of evergreens. That is all well and good, but many of us are just dying to see a flower—any flower—in the garden. And that is precisely why hellebores are so wonderful.
About Christmas and Lenten Rose
What could be better in the gray weeks after the Winter Solstice than to wade into the garden and see the large, buttercup-like flowers of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) shining out like spring beacons? Just as the white blooms of Christmas rose begin their transition to buff pink, Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) unfolds its petals.
If hellebores have been on your radar in the last few years, you know that those substantial Lenten rose petals may appear in an array of colors from palest green through a range of yellows, pinks, and reds to near-black. Not only that, but they may be single or double, with rounded or pointed edges. Bi-colored varieties are common, as are those marked with alluring freckles. Hellebore leaves are usually evergreen, deeply dissected, and medium to dark green in color, depending on species. Sometimes, the foliage is even enhanced with attractive marbling or contrasting venation.
Native to various parts of Europe, western Asia, and China, hellebore species, especially Christmas rose, have been on the horticultural and medicinal radar screen since ancient times.
Large-scale garden use of hellebores has taken off in the last two decades, with the plants’ popularity increasing exponentially. Part of this has to do with modern propagation methods. Traditionally hellebores were grown from seed—a slow process—or increased by dividing established clumps. Modern tissue culture (cloning) has made it much easier to produce large numbers of identical plants.
Breeding efforts in the United States, Europe, and Asia have also resulted in many new, seed-grown varieties. These have been painstakingly bred for specific traits, especially unusual coloration and double flowers.
Hellebores have become catnip to gardeners who love their easy-going nature, long season of bloom and resistance to hungry deer and other garden browsers. Planted in lightly shaded spots with good drainage, most thrive with little care. Though they are reasonably drought tolerant, the plants appreciate supplemental water during dry periods. When planting, enrich the soil with organic material like Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost, to give young plants a good start.
Happy Lenten roses will often mature into large evergreen or partially evergreen clumps that can be used very effectively as ground covers. Their leaves can also provide good cover for the fading foliage of spring bloomers like daffodils and tulips.
Some species, like the unfortunately nicknamed “stinking hellebore” (Helleborus foetidus) also self-sow with enthusiasm.
Hellebores also perform well in spacious containers. Remember to allow enough room for plants that will reach 2-feet in diameter at maturity, and give the roots a good container medium like Fafard® Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. Water containers regularly during summer dry spells. If space is tight, grow hellebores in plastic liner pots that can be dropped into slightly larger containers during the bloom season and removed later to make way for other flowering plants.
Other Hellebore Species
Christmas and Lenten roses are the most frequently planted hellebores, but they are not the only ones available. If you are blessed with a spot that is too sunny for Lenten or Christmas roses, try Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), which grows about 2-feet tall and wide and features large, pale green flowers and lightly marbled, leathery leaves. Mature plants can produce 20 to 30 flowers apiece.
Cloned varieties of the hybrid Eric Smith’s hellebores (Helleborus x ericsmithii) are worth growing for their foliage alone, which is adorned with silvery veining. Many of these hybrids have reddish flower stems that support outward-facing white flowers that age to pink, a testament to their Christmas rose parentage.
For maximum early-season floral impact and sequence of bloom, plant several species of Helleborus in shady garden areas. Christmas rose and its hybrids, bloom first, often followed by bear’s foot or stinking hellebore and the silvery green-leafed Corsican hellebore. The Lenten rose hybrids make a splash afterward. To get the best floral show, especially with low-growing stemless types like Christmas and Lenten rose, clip off old, ragged-looking leaves to allow blossoms and new growth to shine forth.
Berries and interesting tree bark of the winter landscape are lovely, but hellebores make a mid-winter garden party.