Hellebores for Winter Color

One of my favorite plants for this time of the year is the hellebore, which decorates the garden with fascinating blossoms just when the spring bloomers are dormant.

The hellebore thrives and blossoms in partial shade, making it a welcome complement to ferns and other plants that we value only for their foliage.

The genus Helleborus includes about twenty species, the great majority of which are native to the Balkan Peninsula (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia) or the Mediterranean region. The generic name comes from Greek words for “to injure” and “food,” indicating that ll parts of the plant are poisonous to humans. It also has medicinal uses.

Hellebores typically have dark, shiny evergreen leaves with finely serrated edges. The blossoms have been compared to roses, and some popular names for the plant include “rose,” but the hellebore is not related to the rose.

The most highly regarded and poplar species are Corsican Hellebore (H. argutifolius), Stinking Hellebore (H. foetidus), Christmas Rose (H. niger), Livid Lenten Rose (H. lividus), and the original Lenten Rose (H. orientalis).

A large and growing number of hybrids offer many pleasing blossom colors, color combinations and forms. The hybrid forms in the H. x sternii ‘Blackthorn Group’, which combines H. argutifolius and H. lividus, are particularly valued.

Local nurseries often offer at least a few different hellebores at this time of the year, when they are in bloom. Gardeners looking for particular blossom colors are well advised to buy plants in bloom, as some hybrids will produce unexpected colors.

Hellebores typically have downward-facing blossoms, which encourage some gardeners to plant hellebores in an elevated situation, so the viewer can peer into the blossom. In response to gardeners desire to see the blossom’s interior, hybridizers have developed cultivars with more upward-facing blossoms. Ernie and Marietta O’Bryne, of Northwest Garden Nursery, have developed highly regarded hybrid hellebores, including the Winter Jewels series. Their work was featured in the November/December issue of The American Gardener.

A good retail source of these hybrid hellebores is Plant Delights Nursery, in North Carolina. Browse to www.plantdelights.com and search for “Helleborus.” Other mail order sources for these plants include Gossler Farms Nursery and Joy Creek Nursery, both in Oregon.

Most hellebores grow to about fifteen inches high and wide. A few are in the nine-to-twelve inch high category. My garden includes a large swath of the Corsican Hellebore, the largest species, growing to four feet tall and wide. It is just coming into bloom now, with greenish blossoms.

Corsican Hellebore buds

Corsican Hellebore (click to enlarge)

The Corsican Hellebore is one of just four caulescent species of Helleborus, meaning plants that have leaves on flowering stems. The acaulescent species develop basal leaves, and flower stalks without leaves.

In the late winter or early spring, the Corsican Hellebore’s long-lasting flowers fade and the stems lean to the ground to drop their seeds away from the base of the plant. (I get a lot of seedlings each year!) The gardener’s task at that time is to cut the flowering stems to the ground, to make room for the new growth, which has already begun.

I have been adding additional hellebore cultivars to my garden, and enjoying the smaller varieties and the range of blossom colors they provide.

If you have a partially shaded area in your garden, perhaps under a large tree, and would appreciate seeing interesting blossoms during the late fall and early winter, try a few hellebores.

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