WHY WAIT FOR THE FIRST of the bulbs or an extra-eager perennials like Pulmonaria to see some color outside? Most understanding of the gardener’s desperation for some hint of color in the late-winter landscape, before it’s even earliest spring, is the hellebore, a longtime favorite among English gardeners and beginning to be known in America lately, too. No wonder, since many species are adaptable to shade, have evergreen foliage, and long-lasting flowers that may appear from late winter through spring, depending on which one you grow.
The earliest is probably the so-called Christmas rose, Helleborus niger (above), whose large, white waxy flowers are like single-flowered white roses, or camellias, with prominent yellow stamens. Even in my frigid garden, they’re often trying to bloom through a crust of snow in March some years, even earlier in New York City or thereabouts. Unlike most hellebores, which will adapt to acidic soil if asked to, the H. niger likes a dose of lime each year. Like most of the hellebores, its leaves are basically evergreen, though I like to cut off the tattered older ones as winter ends, which also serves to show off the flowers better. (Even if I don’t groom the plants, the first hungry bees of the year will find them, and have a drink.)
Probably the most popular hellebores are hybrids of H. orientalis, the Lenten rose, with 2- to 3- inch blossoms variously shaped like bowls to stars. They range in color from white and cream and yellow through pinks, mauve, wine, and darkest purple, called black, and once a colony gets going, there will be every permutation of shape and color, including flowers with speckles and spots, as the blooms gleefully hybridize with one another. A mature plant, about 1½ feet tall, can bear 75 flowers or so, which is quite a show in late winter.
Because the foliage is evergreen, the hellebore makes an excellent ground cover in the shade of a woodland garden. It is also adaptable to some sun (don’t bake it in the midsummer afternoon heat; pick a location to avoid that). I have seen H. orientalis blooming in Zone 6 as early as late January, before virtually anything else on ground level, and even before the flowering shrubs and trees get going. Added to the winter cutting-garden scheme, they are unrivaled. Cut only the flowers that are well opened, since they do not continue to develop well indoors.
Several other hellebores have especially long-lasting chartreuse flowers and are as easy to grow as H. orientalis. Sun-loving H. argutifolius (sometimes seen in listings as H. corsicus) has blue-green evergreen foliage with sharp teeth. H. foetidus, native to England and Europe, has finely divided leaves like a palm frond. It will grow in sun or shade, and self-sows with abandon, so even though the parent plants don’t stay for the long haul like H. orientalis, you’ll always have some of the younger generations.
Most seasons I notice “new” listings among the hellebores in catalogs. That’s because some hellebore species are closely related enough that they can be crossed with one another, and the hybrids that have resulted (such as H. sternii, a sun-tolerant one, and H. nigercors) should be watched for as they become more widely available and prices drop. I’m also always looking for new color strains of species I already grow.
Hellebores from nursery pots can be transplanted in spring or fall. First prepare the bed well, adding lots of humus-rich material, because these plants are meant to stay put for years. Mulch once the plants, spaced about 3 feet apart, are settled in. Each spring, if you’re feeling generous, give each plant a trowelful of composted manure. The only other chore is a bit of grooming when the foliage looks tired, but even without the tweaking they are a welcome sight. So buy some.