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Plants from the Ground Up

Hellebores Winters’ Gift

Hellebores are such a gift in the winter or very early spring when one feels as if the winter may last forever. It never ceases to amaze me that even in snow these nodding flowers rise up over their foliage to greet you. To really get a good look at these bell-shaped beauties requires getting down on their level to have a look inside or bringing them inside in a vase for up-close viewing!

Helleborus Red Sapphire

Hellebore ‘petals’ are actually sepals (individual leaves of the calyx of the flower) that surround a cup-like center where specialized petals called nectaries hold the flowers nectar. These sepals do not fall off like petals and can stay dried on the plant for months extending the ‘bloom-time’. There are many new cultivars of Hellebores coming in wonderful colorations (pinks, reds, yellows and even black) these cultivars are often doubles. Double flowered varieties are wonderfully beautiful, but the breeding of more sepals is actually at the expense of the plants evolutionary design of sheltering nectaries (the true petals) inside.

Helleborus Ivory Prince

Hellebores have distinctly divided leaves that are glossy green and can be up to a foot wide. They form shade loving clumps that are usually about 2 x 2’ and thrive in well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil with plenty of humus (add lime if soil is under a ph of 7). There are very rugged, easy to grow plants that will tolerate dry soil, shallow soil and are resistant to deer and rabbit browsing. They will perform best if in a spot sheltered from strong winter winds and are perfect for planting under deciduous trees and shrubs. The flowers last for up to 8 weeks. Very cold weather and strong winds can burn the leaves, wait until spring and then merely trim any damaged leaves off the plant.

The word Helleborus comes from the Greek name for H. orientalis, ‘helleboros’ implying that it is poisonous, “elein” to injure and “bora” food. These plants have a long history as a poison and some species are, in fact it has been speculated that a medicine containing Hellebore toxins was the cause of death for Alexander the Great. As always, poisons are also used as medicine and those of you that remember your Greek mythology will remember that Melampus of Pylos used Hellebores to cure the daughters of the king of Argos from their madness. This madness (caused by Dionysus!) made them run weeping and naked throughout the city.

Helleborus orientalis Red Lady

You may know Helleborus as the Christmas Rose which refers to H. niger, so loved in cottage gardens or as the Lenten Rose, so called because H. orientalis blooms in early spring during Lent. Actually, Helleborus is in the Ranuculaceae family and isn’t any kind of rose at all!

Hellebores are native from Europe to Asia with the greatest concentrations being in the Balkans. They freely self-sow and the seedlings can be moved around your shade garden. Although they can be divided, they take quite some time to recover. Depending on the species they are generally hardy from USDA zones 4-8.

For more photos and information, see Helleborus at the Forestfarm Store.

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