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Hellebores Are Wintertime Treasures

Hellebores Are Wintertime Treasures

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Hellebores flower at an unexpected time: January or February, depending how far north you live. This means they pretty much have the garden stage all to themselves. In my opinion, anything blooming in February in my USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6 garden is miraculous, no matter what it looks like, but it doesn’t hurt that hellebores have colorful, intricately-patterned flowers that would hold their own in any June perennial border.

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The perennial’s common names are Lenten rose or Christmas rose, a giveaway that this is a plant that blooms in the cold. Plants can keep flowering into April. This year, the flower buds on one of my plants appeared in December. They’ve been buried under 24 inches of snow ever since, so it will be interesting to see what they look like once it finally melts.

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Hellebore flower colors include white, yellow, pink, red, burgundy, green, chartreuse, and a purple that looks almost black. They are often more than one color. Some are streaked, as though they’ve been painted with a paintbrush. Others have spots or picotee edges. The flowers can be single or double. All have centers with bright yellow stamens that glow against the petals.

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The evergreen leaves are leathery; some are deeply cut with jagged edges, others are smooth and almost tropical looking. A few have silver patterns running through them, providing garden interest even when not in flower.

Although “rose” is in its common name, hellebores (Helleborus) are not a member of the rose family. They belong to the Ranunculus family and are native to Europe and parts of China. 

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H. foetidus. Photograph by Robert Flogaus-FaustCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some common garden hellebores include:

  1. H. orientalis, Lenten rose. The straight species isn’t grown in home gardens much anymore, outside of collectors. Breeders use H. orientalis to create more vigorous hybrids, identified as Helleborus x hybridus.
  2. H. niger, Christmas rose. One of the earliest hellebores to flower. Blooms are mostly white.
  3. H. foetidus, stinking hellebore. It’s not the flowers that have an unpleasant odor, but the dark, almost black leaves. The flowers are a vibrant green. Not as long-lived as other hellebores.
  4. H. argutifolius, Corsican hellebore. Larger than other species, it has pale green flowers. It is the most sun-tolerant hellebore.

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One complaint about hellebores is that the flowers usually hang down, nodding like little bells. That means you have to tilt a flower up to really appreciate its beauty. Breeders have been working on this, and more and more hybrids are available with upward-facing flowers. 

This is another perennial that’s very easy to grow, though it’s best to manage your expectations as to its performance, because it can take a few years to settle in and start producing lots of flowers. Once established, there’s little to do except cut off last year’s brown, tattered leaves right before the flowers open to make room for this year’s foliage. The plants can live for decades.

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How to Grow

Zones: USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 to 9.

Light: Likes part shade to full shade, but some can take full sun.

Planting: When planting a hellebore that’s been grown in a container, gently loosen the roots to help it establish. Hellebores don’t like to be divided.

Water: Hellebores are the thirstiest in spring and fall while they are actively growing, though they are drought tolerant once established. They don’t need much water in summer, while they are dormant.

Soil: Should be moist and well-drained. They will grow in both acid and alkaline soils.

Feeding: Amend soil with compost or aged manure when planting. If grown in soils rich in organic matter, hellebores shouldn’t need to be fertilized, but use an organic fertilizer if one is needed.

Pests and diseases: Pretty much pest-proof. Plants are toxic to people and animals, so watch pets. The toxins also mean deer, rabbits and other wildlife won’t eat them.

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Hellebore foliage adds its own contribution to the border, because those bold, deep green leaves provide valuable contrast to other foliage. Leave brown or older foliage on the plant into winter to protect the developing flower buds. You can trim it off once the flower buds emerge.

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Hellebores usually grow one to two feet high and wide. Use them in the woodland garden, shade garden, towards the front of the border, or anywhere you’d like to see a bit of spring in the depths of winter.

One way to enjoy the flowers is to snip some off, bring them indoors and float them in a bowl of water.

Like snowdrops, hellebores are a plant that collectors go crazy for. But since they are not in bloom later in spring when people visit garden centers, they’re not as familiar to the average gardener as they deserve to be.

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