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.

Garden Priorities for Summer

Last week, regarding summer care of roses, I briefly recommended fertilizing monthly and responding promptly to signs of insect or disease problems. Those are constructive actions, but there’s more that can be done to help your roses to flourish!

Fertilizing roses in the summer is important if they show signs of nutrient deficiency, such as weak growth. Provide a light application of fertilizer with an emphasis on phosphorous.

Recall that fertilizer labels indicate the percentages of the three principal ingredients: N – nitrogen (promotes the growth of leaves and vegetation); P – phosphorus (promotes root and shoot growth); and K – potassium (promotes flowering and fruiting). I have used Dr. Earth’s Rose & Flower Fertilizer (5–7–2), but you could find other very good fertilizers at your local garden center. As always, follow supplier’s recommendations.

Yellowing foliage probably indicates an iron deficiency, which calls for spraying with a liquid iron supplement.

The most common pest of roses is the aphid, which suck the plants juices from buds, stems and the underside of leaves. They can be washed away with a forceful stream of water, or treated with a spray of insecticidal soap, such as Safer® Brand insect killing soap.

I routinely grow Society Garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), which has a garlicky fragrance that seems to confuse or distract aphids. It really works!

Weekly watering will keep roses healthy during the summer months. Water roses at ground level to keep foliage dry and avoid fungal diseases. Use organic mulch to minimize evaporation and discourage weeds.

Deadheading spent blossom will promote new blooms. Cut them off close to a close to a cluster of five leaves; some experts recommend cutting at the second five-leaf cluster, to encourage growth from a stronger stem.

Remove suckers at the base promptly. If possible, pull them off from the rootstock; otherwise, cut them below the soil surface.


Deadhead other spring-blooming plants. This practice improves the appearance of the garden, promotes new blossoms from many plants, and reduces the spread of seeds (which might or might not be desired).

Currently, I am deadheading two larger plants: Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) and Mediterranean Spurge (Euphorbia characias, subsp. wulfenii).

Here are Hellebores in full bloom, standing upright.

Hellebores-1 Hellebores-cu2

And here they are laying over:


Here are the Euphorbias, fading:

DSC02469 DSC02468

These plants are quite different but still have common characteristics: they both produce large, dense clusters of flowers on thick stalks that bend over as the flowers fade to drop seeds away from the base of the plant. Both also are prolific self-seeders, if allowed.

At the same time, they produce new growth that limits access to the base of the flower stems. I have found a telescoping pruner to be invaluable in this task. A “cut & hold” model would be ideal.

Enjoy your garden in the summer!