Most gardeners are impatient for the arrival of spring by sometime in January. If you head outside on a mild winter’s day, looking for some sign of crocuses or snowdrops, take heart! Adding some early-blooming plants to your landscape will bring a touch of spring in winter.
Hellebores are a wonderful group of perennials, members of the Buttercup family, which offer a lot and ask for little in the garden: year-round interest with beautifully colored flowers that start blooming in very early spring; attractive evergreen foliage; hardy, long-lived, low-maintenance plants that tolerate a range of conditions; and pest, disease and deer resistance.
Most hellebores that you will find in garden centers are hybrids of several species, commonly called Lenten rose, botanically Helleborus x hybridus. These hybrids offer a wide range of flower colors, from whites, creams, greens and yellows through pinks, mauves, and reds to plums and purples that are near-black; some flowers may have spotting, veining, or picotee edges of different hues. Most are cup-shaped and nodding with five rounded sepals, but some are more upward-facing, with star-shaped sepals or double forms.
The flowers bloom as early as January through April, and because the color is provided by sepals that do not fall off as petals do, the show will continue on for several months as the flowers slowly fade to green.
There are a couple of other hellebore species that are sometimes available. Stinking Hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, has pale green flowers that are present throughout winter, carried on stems up to 2 feet in height and complimented by dark green divided leaves. And while Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, doesn’t bloom at Christmas in our climate, it does have large pure white flowers in early spring, although they are sometimes hidden by the foliage.
Because of the wide genetic variation inherent in hellebores, it is best to select a plant in bloom if you are looking for a particular color or form. Hellebores interbreed readily and seedlings, while produced abundantly, rarely live up to expectations.
Hellebores are hardy in zones 4-9. Plants gradually form large clumps about 2 feet in height and width. The evergreen leaves are fan-shaped, large and divided, leathery and dark green. Hellebores prefer alkaline (limestone) soils, although tolerant of more acidic soils. They grow and flower best in light dappled shade. Although tolerant of heavy clay or drier soils, they perform best in a deeply-prepared fertile soil with generous amounts of organic matter worked in. The one condition they will not tolerate is wet soils or poor drainage; they must have well-drained soil to survive.
Once established, hellebores are durable and drought-tolerant, although they will benefit from an occasional watering during the hottest, driest summer weather. They require very little ongoing maintenance and are bothered by few pests.
The flower and leaf buds form in late summer; you can venture out in winter and get a peek at this new growth beneath the old leaves – a harbinger of the beauty soon to burst forth. This new growth is generally hardy, but I like to put evergreen boughs (from my discarded Christmas tree) over the crowns for an extra measure of protection during the bitterest weather or when winter temperatures fluctuate greatly, as they often do in our area.
In early spring, carefully cut away old foliage to make way for the emerging flower stalks and new leaves. This is also a good time to add a layer of well-aged compost or leaf mulch around the plants.
All parts of the hellebore plant contain toxic alkaloids. This makes the leaves repellent to deer and rabbits; although if hungry enough, deer have been known to nibble. Aphids, slugs and voles may be occasional pests; and black spot is an occasional fungal disease on the leaves during wet and humid conditions.
Hellebores can be used as a slow-spreading groundcover under deciduous trees. They also shine as specimen plants because of their exquisite flowers. Hellebores make excellent companion plants with spring bulbs such as daffodils, and they look great with many perennials such as pulmonaria, epimedium, bleeding heart, ferns, hostas, brunnera, tiarella, Solomon’s seal and hakone grass.
Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.