here (finally!) come the hellebores

frilly-hellebore-seedlingONLY THE TRULY FEARLESS FLOWERS such as winter aconites, snowdrops and the giant pussy willow have dared to open so far at A Way to Garden, where a certain gardener is growing impatient. But here come the hellebores: Helleborus niger, H. foetidus and my mainstay, the orientalis hybrids, are coming on strong.

I said in this week’s email newsletter (what, you’re not on the list yet?) that I’d tell you how to grow them, and then I thought about it. Hmmmm…my detailed recommendations: Plant them in the ground and enjoy.

It’s not that simple, I suppose, but almost, since hellebores seem to be about as tough as any perennial comes. If you avoid an area that’s sodden, or too baking-hot in summer sunshine, you’re in. At least that’s my observation after about a decade of growing them. I am no expert (there’s a list of link of expert testimony at the end of this page).

But here is what I do know: Being poisonous, like Narcissus, they are deerproof (and you know how I feel about deer).

Being early bloomers, they are much-appreciated (by gardeners, who have been treated to not much else by the time the hellebores go for it, in late March or early April in Zone 5B).

double-purpleThose aren’t petals but sepals that make up the flower, which can nod or face outward. The sepals will sometimes be slightly greenish (or more so) and even conduct photosynthesis. Hellebores are fascinating morphologically, if you are into that kind of thing: sepals and nectaries and their stemlessness, or acaulescence (true of niger and the orientalis kinds). The sepals come in all shapes and sizes (and there are even double flowers, above).

They are ideal season-starters under deciduous shrubs and trees, requiring lots of sun winter through spring, and the orientalis types are also good nearly evergreen groundcovers, even in my cold zone.

They will even tolerate dry shade (though blooms and overall vigor will be better in less-abusive conditions, in my experience). Watering them in the absence of rainfall, especially when they are setting next year’s buds in late spring and summer, seems only kind.

You can feed them with a balanced all-natural organic fertilizer when you topdress your beds in early spring. Or not. (Tony Avent of Plant Delights, much more experienced than I am, confirms they seem to be fine even without that something extra. He also says they’ll even grow under black walnuts, but I can neither confirm nor deny.)

You should cut back the foliage in late winter so you can enjoy the flowers better. Or not. (Remember, nobody in the Balkans or Greece or Turkey and wherever else these plants originally hail from every went around and cut back their foliage for them in nature, and they survived.) The very simple steps are part of the slideshow, below.

Interplant them with little ephemerals that jump up show their stuff and then disappear back underground; the hellebores (leafless after the step you undertook above) will allow room for that. Or skip it, and just do wall-to-wall hellebores. Or just use the occasional hellebore amid other shade-garden plants that start later, a clump here and there. Just keep in mind when mixing them with other plants: The hellbores will have substantial leaves, like the best groundcovers do, so don’t combine with something that will get swamped by their foliage.

My own hellebore adventure started with a few plants of H. niger maybe 15 or so years ago, and a decade ago moved on to the others, and I am endlessly fascinated to see what these sexy perennials will do in the way of mating with one another to create new plant heights, flower sizes, shapes and color combinations. My orientalis phase started with only yellow and black orientalis hybrids (maybe it was the cover of Graham Stuart Thomas’s “Perennial Garden Plants,” a 1976 classic whose 1990-edition dust jacket shows a yellow and a darkest-purple hellebore side-by-side, that inspired me?), and now I have a menagerie, some of which are shown below.

More opening daily; updates to come. Enjoy. (Click on the first thumbnail to start the photo show, then navigate slide to slide by clicking the arrows next to the captions.)

Expert information and sources:

April 6, 2009


  1. says

    The folks at Pine Knot Farms in VA are wonderful to work with and have many kinds of hellebores to choose from!…They often travel to plant shows and sales throughout the Mid Altantic East Coast…I bought about 12 plants from them at the Witch Hazel festival last Februrary at RareFind Nursery in Jackson, NJ (Another winner of a nursery that has a fabulous mail order business of rare periennials, shrubs and trees).
    Highly recommended.

  2. Jennifer in Hudson Valley says

    Harumph. Why is my hellebore the same size it was when I bought it 5 years ago? It gets more beautiful blooms each year but it’s defintely not spreading. And I wish it would!

  3. Steve - Troy NY says

    (I love the pictures) I have a Hellebore question. I have several near a bed of pachysandra, which is spreading. So far the Hellebore are doing fine at the periphery of that bed – already up and some flowers. Can they coexist easily, or do I have to intervene and make certain the Hellebore have some space, by making a “pachysandra-free buffer” around each plant. I saw the reference to surviving under Black Walnut, so I thought this might be similar. I would prefer if they could “just get along” and I like the combination that they are beginning to make. (It almost seems like I planned something) Thanks

    • says

      Hi, Steve. The pachysandra will probably try to dominate, so each year it’s probably best to just dig out the leading edge of it where it’s heading into the hellebores — to keep it in check, if you like the two near each other. The hellebores are very tough, but they won’t look so gorgeous all covered in pachy!

  4. Terri H. says

    Margaret, I just planted some hellebores last week (the final week of September). I’m in the same zone as you, in Northern Illinois. I’m thinking maybe they won’t bloom this coming spring–they only have a couple of leaf-clusters each. What do the flowerbuds look like in the fall? Thanks.

  5. Betsey says

    I have been given a Helleborus”HGC Cinnamon Snow’; I live in Western NY. How do I care for (water, light, temperature) this most attractive plant until it goes outside in the spring?

    • says

      I’d keep it on the cool side, Betsey, as cool as you can, since it’s really an outdoor plant that would be int he ground dormant at this time. When things are “forced” for indoor enjoyment it does take a lot of energy from them.

  6. says

    Hi, it’s Terri again… the hellebores I planted last fall haven’t sent up flower stalks yet. Should I be worried? Of course, they just got buried in snow anyway… I hope the squirrels didn’t get them. I’ve left last year’s foliage on for now.

  7. Candi says

    My 3 year old hellebore is budding, like it has every year. I have never cut back the foliage and my flowers are always hiding. Is it to late to cut the leaves back now? I live in central Oregon and there is a good chance we will get more snow.

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