Hellebores bloom with elegant downward facing flowers. It is remarkable that blooms with such a demure countenance have become such a hit with breeders and gardeners. Hellebores were once the darlings of plant enthusiasts, but now the gardening public is enthusing over them, too.
Evergreen, hardy in Zones 6 – 9, easy to grow, low maintenance, late winter-early spring flowers, long bloom time, shade tolerant, deer resistant. Hellebores come with good recommendations.
Hellebore species H. x hybridus plants are often called Lenten roses because they bloom around lent. These plants are hybrids. Their various flower colors include white, mauve, pink, green, purple, blackish-purple, cream or yellow. The flowers may be single or double, patterned with spots or stripes. Some are picotee edged. This familiar species is also referred to as H. orientalis.
The plants readily cross pollenate and self-sow in the garden. New seedlings take 3 – 4 years to produce flowers and then don’t bloom true to their parent type. For the consumer—and the enthusiast—there is a bit of adventure in growing hellebores from seed. You never know what the new hellebore flowers will look like.
The most reliable way for a gardener to duplicate a hellebore is to gently separate the crown of the plant just after it blooms in the spring. Note: Hellebores don’t require division.
Breeders seem to favor plants they can tweak into an array of shapes and colors and hellebores appear to be one of those plants. In the past named cultivars and varieties were difficult to find. More recently progress in propagation through tissue culture and hand pollination has produced more stable plants with varied flower colors and patterns.
When a plant is grown from tissue culture you know exactly what you will get. Tissue culture is like dividing plants in the garden, but it is done under sterile controlled conditions. The new plants are healthy disease-free vigorous clones of the originals.
Hellebores are considered shade plants but actually prefer partial or dappled shade (dense shade reduces blooms). The plants can tolerate some morning sun but need to be protected from midday and afternoon sun.
Plant hellebores with the crown close to the surface, just covered with soil. Planting too deeply reduces flowering. Soil must be well draining and have good organic content. Neutral to slightly acidic soil enriched with compost is sometimes recommended; however, hellebores also grow in clayey and alkaline soils. Regardless, give them a yearly helping of compost.
Hellebores need to be kept slightly moist until they are well established. They are not active growers during the heat of the summer, but still need water. With time they will become somewhat drought tolerant.
The plants are mostly pest free but slugs, snails, aphids, black spot, leaf spot and crown rot can make an appearance. Hellebores need well drained soil with good sanitation and airflow to help keep them trouble free.
A hellebore’s late winter-early spring flowers are many times hidden behind last year’s leaves. The old leaves should be removed before the buds open—usually in late winter. That will make flowers more visible when they bloom. It is also a good practice to remove old leaves because they may harbor fungal disease.
Inexpensive hybrid hellebores can be unpredictable in quality, sometimes producing disappointingly murky flowers. Then again, maybe not. Offspring from unnamed hellebores can be wildly unpredictable. That is part of the adventure with hellebores. Experts suggest buying seed raised hellebores when in bloom so you will be happy with your choice.
Meanwhile, other species bloom true to their parent type.
The name Christmas Rose refers to the species Hellebore niger; it does not bloom at Christmas, but in late winter. It blooms with white flat-faced flowers that tinge with pink as they age.
Two reliable species that must be grown from seed are H. foetidus and H. agutafolius. Foetidus or stinking hellebore (the leaves stink, not the flower) produces clusters of nodding lime green flowers. Agutafolius or Corsican hellebore has pendent bowl-shaped green flowers and spiny foliage.
Hellebores are interesting plants. If only the flowers would look up instead of at the ground, then we could better see their pretty faces. Plant breeders are working on that.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at firstname.lastname@example.org.