Hellebores: Jewels of Winter, Part I
Most people think that winter is a “dead time” in the garden, but they could not be more wrong. In a climate as mild as Washington DC (officially a zone 7b, but Mother Nature doesn’t seem to like being pigeonholed), little signs of spring start to appear as early as January.
I’d like to share my love affair with the jewels of the winter—Helleborus. Hellebores are members of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), and are shade loving, evergreen plants which bloom during the winter months. Wait—it gets even better—deer don’t find them to be particularly tasty!
It used to be that the most commonly found hellebores in nurseries were the Christmas rose, (Helleborus niger) and the Lenten rose (Helleborus hybridus). Other species were available but sorely under appreciated Times have changed, and thanks to breeders, the diversity of Hellebores on the market is quite amazing,
Here are a few of my favorite Hellebores growing in the Smithsonian Mary Livingston Ripley Garden:
A long time favorite of mine has always been Helleborus foetidus, or the Stinking Hellebore. What a cruel name for a gorgeous plant! Helleborus foetidus has finely-cut fingerlike evergreen foliage which thrives in shady conditions. The real show begins in October when chartreuse flower stalks start emerging above the foliage, taunting you with the promise of flowers. The small lime green bells finally unfurl in late January or February, demure clusters of little green bells edged in raspberry.
One interesting fact about Hellebores is that the flower ‘petals’ are actually modified leaves so even after the flower starts seed production, these ‘petals’ remain attractive for two to three months.
The only maintenance required for this hellebore is to cutting off the flower stems once they start to look tatty. Or, if you have enough plants, cut off the flowering stems before the seed pods ripen, otherwise they will self sow to produce a large colony.
Another favorite species of mine is Helleborus argutifolius, or the Corsican hellebore. It also produces lovely chartreuse flowers, which are striking against its coarsely-toothed blue-grey foliage. The flower opens entirely and is outward facing to display the prominent yellow stamens very clearly. The one challenge I have with the Corsican Hellebore is that the two-foot stems flop, leaving a gaping bald spot in the center of the clump—nothing a little discrete staking can’t hide. Like Helleborus foetidus, the Corsican hellebore is caulescent (flowers are produced on the same stem as the foliage) so once the flowers begin to look tatty or you don’t want any more plants, remove this entire stem down to the ground, and any other stems that look rough after the winter.
Helleborus x hybridus
One of the classic hellebores on the market is Helleborus x hybridus, the Lenten rose, with blooms ranging from white to pink. Due to the seed grown variability it is always best to purchase plants in flower if you want to know what you’re getting. Otherwise, enjoy the surprise!
-Janet Draper, Horticulturist