How about a perennial that can start blooming before your earliest spring bulbs, continue flowering until your roses are almost ready and has great looking, deer resistant foliage for the rest of the year? Welcome to the world of hellebores!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 2, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but pleae be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Primarily native to Europe, hellebores are easy to care for and should appeal to both new and seasoned gardeners. They thrive in shade to partial shade and prefer a moist, but well-drained soil with sufficient organic matter. In this respect, hellebores are ideal woodland plants. You should not allow more than a few hours of direct morning sun or a sustained dry period.
Some of the common names for hellebores are Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and Lenten rose (H. orientalis). These names are more useful in describing the approximate bloom time, as the plants are not in the rose family (Rosaceae), but in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). In my years of growing them, I have never noted any resemblance whatsoever to rose blooms!
Barry Glick, hellebore hybridizer of Sunshine Farm and Gardens in Renick, WV, recommends a soil pH between 5.5 and 7.0 and describes the plants as 'greedy feeders'. He likes to use timed-release fertilizers at the high end of the prescribed application range. I have gone years without fertilizing them at all however, and mine have done just fine, though my soil may be more fertile than the average.
Propagation may be done by seed or by division. Glick says patience is key when going the seed route, as it can take 2 to 4 years before you see your first flower. He recommends division be done in late fall or early spring. The plant should be lifted, the soil rinsed off and sharp cuts be made, assuring at least two buds on each rhizome. The new plants should flower in the following year or two.
Popular hellebore species include H. niger, the Christmas rose, which bears white flowers that are more upright than the blooms on many other species. These are the hardiest as well, reportedly growing in zone 3. Another popular species is H. foetidus, or stinking hellebore. Before you are tempted to say, 'I don't need no stinking hellebores!', you'll be relieved to learn that this is more legend than reality. Broken foliage is the purported offender, but I grow these and have never noticed any bad odor. This species sports some of the coolest foliage you will find. One variety I grow, 'Sopron', has bluish-green, thin palmate foliage with the flower stalks held high above.
More popular than the species are the hybrids. Collectively known as Helleborus x hybridus, they are the product of crosses of H. orientalis and a number of other hellebore species. They have larger, wider palmate foliage and bloom colors that range from whites to pinks to practically black, deep purples. The flowers nod or droop, but it's well worth the effort to bend down and gently lift them, or to lay on the ground to photograph them, as I have done many times. So popular are the hybrids, they were chosen 2005 Perennial of the Year. They perform reliably in zones 4 through 7. As with many of the species, the foliage remains green throughout the winter, and looks great after the first snows of the season. By the end of the winter, however, the foliage gets a bit ratty and should be cut back to the base. By then the new season's flower stalks should be emerging.
I have begun to use the hybrids as a reliable ground cover for shadier beds. In a mature clump, when the foliage reaches full size by mid-spring, it forms a virtual canopy about 18 to 24 inches high, that completely shades out any weeds. And unlike hostas, which I also use as ground cover, hellebores are untouched by rabbits or deer, both of which have pending eminent domain claims on my garden! The only drawback as a ground cover is the slow growth. It takes about three years to form a nice thick clump.
They are wonderful companions to spring bulbs, as well as other shade dwellers. They work well under deciduous trees where the sun of late winter and early spring will bring attention to the blooms. The subsequent leafing out of the trees will then provide the necessary shading. Try to avoid trees with roots which lie close to the surface however, as they will compete with the hellebores for each drop of water.
Heavenly hellebores - one of the underused garden Superstars!
Photos: 1 - H. x hybridus 'Sunshine Selections'; 2 - H. 'Sunmarble'; 3 - H. foetidus 'Sopron' 4 - H. x hybridus 'Sunshine Selections'; 5 - H. x hybridus 'Sunshine Selections'
My background is in engineering, but these days I am a stay at home dad. I have always loved Nature, but had no idea when I bought my house that I would become the gardening fanatic that I have. Gardening both stimulates and relaxes me, appeals to all my senses and gives me the privilege to be part of the Nature I love.