Gardeners and Hellebores
Ok, drumroll here….I think I can say that Hellebores are my favorite perennial plant. A well-kept secret of garden enthusiasts, Hellebores should be more widely known to serious and not so serious gardeners alike; this is a plant that is worth seeking out. What other plant resists deer, neglect, likes shade-even deep shade, is evergreen, arranges beautifully, and has stunning flowers? Did I mention that it blooms for 3 – 4 months of the year? That was not a typo- Hellebores bloom for at least 3 months, sometimes longer, starting in mid February for me in the mid-Atlantic region, and soldiering on until at least April or May. Increasingly, I have seen them for sale at Trader Joe’s and other unlikely places, so I think finally people are waking up to the value of this flower. Poisonous, deer turn up their nose at these beautiful plants.
So, why isn’t this plant in more gardens? Several reasons…First they are pricey. Retail prices can range from $15 to $30 a piece. Second, when most people are browsing the garden centers in May, the plants have mostly finished their blooming show and people move on to fresher blooming plants. Third, Hellebore flower colors are usually subtle greens, pinks, and whites, and many gardeners want something brighter and flashier. But hybridizers are working on that with increasingly colorful flowers being released every year.
For bee and nature lovers, this plant is extra important because it is an early nectar source for pollinators. There isn’t much blooming when they are in their glory in the late winter and I am sure to see the flowers filled with bees on a warmer day.
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
Another drawback other than their high price, and I warn my clients about this when I include them in a garden design; they take a while to establish. To get a nice size blooming clump, it will take about 5 years if you start with a quart size plant. So, in this day and age of instant gratification, this can be a deal stopper for some people.
Very few perennial plants can tolerate the winter snow and wind that nature throws at them in January and February, but Hellebores emerge in late February with a welcome spring show. Some of the evergreen foliage might get burned on the edges and get tattered but you can quickly nip off those leaves for fresh to emerge.
The most popular varieties are the Oriental hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus ) which grow in the USDA zones 6-9.
The common name for Hellebores is Lenten Rose, because they bloom around the season of Lent. Hybridizers have latched onto Hellebores and specialized in creating a rainbow of colors, such as yellow, burgundy, spotted, black, pinks, and picotees. And the names!….Honeyhill Joy, Ivory Prince, Amber Gem, Berry Swirl, Cotton Candy, Black Diamond, Golden Lotus, Onyx Odyssey, Rose Quartz, Peppermint Ice, are just the tip of the iceberg. They sound like paint colors on a paint swatch.
The downward facing flowers have been bred to tilt outward instead of downward facing so that you can easily see the flower show. Hybridizers have also turned their attention to the foliage, breeding for variegation, burgundy flushed stems, and silvery sheens. All these efforts must have paid off as they are flooding the nurseries and the prices are top dollar. I have seen Hellebores for more than $50 a piece. They are getting as expensive as some hybridized peonies!
The culture of Hellebores is so easy that if you just plant them in a shady or partly shady spot, you’re done! I have some in sunny locations here in Maryland, but in more southern states, like Florida, plant them in full shade. In particular, Lenten Rose is a valuable player for dry shade, the nemesis of many gardeners. I use them as a ground cover under large trees where deer are prone to browse. For more shady ground cover choices, go to Made for the Shade.
Hellebores will set seed all around the plant and when the seedlings appear, dig them up and scatter them around. You will have large clumps in no time that last for years and years.
As I noted earlier, if you nip the older outer leaves in late winter, so the new stems and leaves can come up in the center. That is it for maintenance!