ONLY 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).
Those 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:
- Northwest Garden Nursery, Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne
- Tony Avent of Plant Delights on growing hellebores
- In Virginia, Pine Knot Farms’ Dick and Judith Tyler