Add a burst of color to your part-sun to full shade flower garden with Hellebores (also known as Christmas Rose and Lenten Rose). Blooming in late winter and early spring, this evergreen perennial is even known to emerge through the snow. It has pendulous, papery-textured flowers that display unusual colors starting as early as winter. Blooms are long-lasting which makes them good for cutting as well as for use in floral arrangements. One reason Hellebores last so long is that their rounded petals aren't really petals at all. They're sepals, which by definition are sturdy, petal-like parts that surround the true petals. Hellebores can withstand poor soil, drought, heat, humidity, and cold. They are disease-resistant, pest-resistant, and will grow in most types of soil. They are also resistant to deer and rabbits.
The genus is native to much of Europe from western Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, eastward across the Mediterranean region and central Europe into Romania and Ukraine as well as along the north coast of Turkey. Popular Hellebore varieties include the Helleborus x hybridus, Helleborus niger, and the taller varieties which include Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus foetidus. Helleborus hybrids come in a wide range of colors from pink and red to yellow, apricot, white, green and even black. Helleborus niger blooms are either white or white with a pink tinge. Helleborus foetidus displays clusters of striking chartreuse flowers with dark red edges. Hellebores will bloom for 8 to 12 weeks or more. Both H. argutifolius and H. foetidus have received the coveted Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society of England.
Hellebores prefer humus rich, moist, well-drained soil. They will grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9 and American Horticultural Society Heat Zones 8 to 1. Some Hellebores may grow in Hardiness Zone 3 as well. The more sun the plants receive in the Spring, the fuller they will become later in the year.
Warning: Hellebores are poisonous and should not be consumed. Some people develop rashes if they come into contact with the sap. Always wear gloves and warn children about touching the plants.
To propagate Hellebores, you will need to dig the plants after bloom and carefully divide them into sections having several roots as well as some dormant buds. The best time to do this in the spring. Multiplying these plants by seed is a slow process that takes up to two or three years before the first flowers appear and as much as eight years to grow a good, thick clump. Hellebores will self-sow. Young plants appear near the base of an established plants.
Pruning is best done in mid-winter. The old growth around the outside of the plant should be cut to the ground and the flowers dead-headed. Snip off faded blooms if you want to prevent seed colonies from forming around the base of the plant. You can remove old foliage anytime it begins to look ragged or unsightly. Hellebores are very forgiving plants when it comes pruning. Keep an eye on the foliage and prune out the old leaves when the new ones start to emerge. If you let new foliage emerge among the old foliage, it will be very difficult to prune out the old without harming the new.
Although known to be resistant to diseases and pests, one disease that has become problematic for Hellebores is the Hellebore net necrosis virus (HeNNV), also known as Hellebore Black Death. Other problems that are less severe are Hellebore Leaf Spot, a virus that causes brown patches on the leaves and stems, and aphids which not only suck juices from leaves and stems but also transmit diseases. Natural insect sprays can be bought commercially or can be homemade. Always remember that most sprays that kill problem insects will also kill the beneficial ones. Read the labels carefully. Suggestions for making your own natural insecticides can be found here.
Some plants that make good companions for Hellebores include spring bulbs such as Crocus. Anemones and Daffodils, Woodland Phlox, Pulmonarias, Cyclamen, Toad Lilies, Polygonatums, and Asters. Hellebores planted around shrubs like Viburnum, Callicarpa, Ilex and Hamamelis can become striking displays in the landscape.
Credits: Thumbnail and top photos courtesy of Morguefiles; vintage illustrations are in the public domain; photos of Helleborus 'Pink Frost' and Helleborus 'Pink Parachutes' are the my own.