I’M OFTEN ASKED by frustrated gardeners how I managed to get my big old hellebore plants to grow so lustily—as if they are finicky, or difficult. To me they seem easy, but since reader questions persist, in 2013 I asked a guy with 6 acres of mature plants and decades of hellebore-breeding experience, Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens. We also covered when to divide woodland wildflowers, and some deer-resistant recommendations for the shade garden.
Background: Barry Glick–a serious plantaholic who’s even a vegan and is sometimes also referred to in mock botanical Latin as the Glicksterus maximus–is a native of the Philadelphia area, and has been gardening since childhood. In 1972, he purchased 60 acres of a 3,650-foot-high mountaintop in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, that became Sunshine Farm and Gardens (which you can stroll though and shop from at sunfarm.com). Barry’s a garden writer and a longtime lecturer—but most of all I love how he was described in one magazine article I read recently:
“The Flower Child Who Became the Flower King.”
snippets from my q&a with barry glick
IN THE TEXT BELOW, I harvested just the briefest details from conversations with Barry before, after and during the show taping, so be sure to listen in as well as read (the podcast player is just above), for extra unexpected goodies. Examples: the fact that a Number 8 “camel-hair” brush—which Barry uses for hand-pollination of hellebores—is actually made from squirrel fur. Or that the longest-lasting way to enjoy hellebore flowers is to cut them with about a quarter-inch of stalk left behind each bloom, and float them in a bowl of water, where they will last a couple of weeks.
Q. I have grown hellebores—the ones I still call the orientalis hybrids—for about 15 years, and they have never missed a beat. Do people tell you they find them hard to grow, too, and ask you for the “secret”?
A. Hellebores are of the most idiot-proof plants in the world—and the only way I have been able to kill them is to plant them in puddles. If you’re in Florida or South Carolina and plant them in full sun and don’t water them, you’ll probably have problems, too, but they can grow in every state in the United States.
The ones that were called orientalis are actually Helleborus x hybridus—and draw on the complex genetics of about 19 species of hellebore that go into the mix. You can tell if you see ones with divided foliage that they may have Helleborus multifidus in their background, for example; viridis brings green flowers and of course purpureus beings purple. The species odorus, which sounds like it’s about fragrance, brings the yellow color. The hybrids are very easy to grow. They prefer rich, moist soil with good drainage, part to full shade.
Q. People always ask me when to divide hellebores–but I never have! What about you?
A. Hellebores don’t require division. I’ve had plants continue to flower for decades, and yes, maybe some plants after 30 or 35 years have shown a little dead in the middle. But mostly why divide them? By the way: The x hybridus types can live over 100 years.
If you want to share or multiply a specific plant, though, here’s what to do: Mark the particular plants you want to divide while they are flowering. Dig it up the following spring before flowering time—when the soil is just thawed. Wash the soil off so you can see where to make your divisions and make accurate cuts, using a sharp knife (I use a steak knife). Be sure to leave a couple of buds on each division.
I use an anti-shock transplant formula when I transplant (including Vitamin B1 and chelated iron and other ingredients). I also a high-Phosphorus fertilizer to encourage good rooting.
Q. I often relocate seedlings that form around the mother hellebore plants—but I wait till Year 2, when they are big enough to handle. Is that the best way to go?
A. Yes, wait till they have their first set of true leaves to move.
A lot of people are disappointed that the seedlings, if they were self-pollinated by the parent plant, aren’t as vigorous—but you might get something interesting, if it was pollinated by another nearby plant.
At the farm, we control the crosses as part of our breeding program, to make the Sunshine Selections, following a process like this.
Q. Compared to my hybrids that just get bigger and better year after year, staying in ever-widening clumps, Helleborus foetidus seems to move from one end of a bed to another as it wishes.
A. Helleborus foetidus is a shorter-lived perennial, and does indeed sow around the garden. There are many good selections within this species, with very different foliage. [Here’s ‘Frenchy,’ for instance, with very lacey leaves.]
A little background: foetidus is what’s called a caulescent hellebore (as is the species argutifolius). The acaulescent species (meaning “without a stem”) are those that contribute to the x hybridus types—all those other species we talked about.
Q. OK, let’s switch gears to other plants: When should I divide Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica? [Those are some, above, in Margaret’s front yard.]
A. Again—why divide them, as they will sow themselves around and make more, so it’s not a necessity to divide them (the way it is every few years with something like Heuchera). But if you need to propagate:
There are dormant buds all over the rhizome, so if you get a seven- or eight-year-old plant you can dig it up after flowering and after the seed drops. Cut up the rhizomes into a couple of pieces and plant them right away, and new buds will develop. Make sure the soil you put on top of it is loose.
But again: there’s really no reason to propagate, unless perhaps because you get a white-flowered one and want more of it. They’ll make a nice colony from seed themselves.
Q. What about deer? Are they a problem for you, and if so, what escapes their browsing?
A. The deer are so bad here, I say that they eat the paint off the barn. Want me to send you some?
But some things among many that they don’t eat: Mertensia, ferns, Primula japonica, Arisaema, Cimicifuga, Caulophyllum, Iris, Actaea, Delphinium, Paeonia, Thalictrum…
shopping at sunshine farm and gardens
AS WITH EVERYTHING Glick, the “catalog” of sunfarm.com is packed with information (and plants) but also just a tad eccentric. Want to order? Availability and pricing on many things is “in Barry’s head,” the site explains matter-of-factly, so please “Email Barry’s head,” it instructs you, about what you’re interested in.
- shop for hellebores at sunshine farm
- Browse the website from the start
- Email Barry’ to inquire about plants at Barry [at] sunfarm [dot] com
(Hellebore photos from Barry Glick at Sunshine Farm and Gardens. Photo of Barry by Lee Reich.)
Great interview with Berry – I learned a lot!
Thanks, Morgan — he is such an enyclopedia (and hilarious).
I put in a hellebore a couple years back, and it’s never bloomed. It now has new foliage and is sitting in the shade of my cherry tree. Wondering what it’s missing?
GORGEOUS!!!!! I just may have to move to a colder area to be able to grow these. Sadly, its too warm here for them.
My hellebores were pathetic this year. I’m not sure what the problem is. The only ones who bloomed were the Helleborus foetidus, the orientalis have done great years past. The conditions seem right- well drained, a bit of morning sun. The only thing I can think of is we’ve had very warm winters the last two years and brutally hot summers.
Thanks to you and your beautiful display of hellebores they became my favorite, must have plant.
Sadly this year they did not return but for a small leaf here and there.
I live in z4 and we had a loooong winter and a late spring, perhaps that was the reason. Are they gone forever? Please say no
H. foetidus was the showiest plant in the woodland garden all winter. I try to remember to cut spent flowers ’cause it seeds all over the place. Niger and orientalis bloomed late winter and all spring and also seed all over. This year, I had a big problem with APHIDS on nearly all hellebores and I have many. Any suggestions, Margaret? I don’t like to spray chemicals and anyway, it’s hard to get to the underside of leaves unless you lie down on the ground. Other people tell me they have the same problem this year but no one knows what to do short of spraying.
I planted Hellebores (Orientatis) in a dappled shade bed. They disappeared and seemed to die back. This spring, I have a few hellebore leaves in that spot so I guess they resurrected themselves. We’ll see what happens over the summer.
Hi, Sue. Normally the foliage will go brown around flowering time, just before new leaves push out, but a stressed plant (such as one newly planted) may sulk and go dormant in self-defense. Glad it reappeared!