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 think they are easy to grow, and don’t feel as if I did much but plant them and keep them watered till they settled in.
It’s not that simple, I suppose, but almost, since hellebores seem to be about as tough as any perennial. If you avoid an area that’s sodden, or too baking-hot in full summer sunshine (especially in more Southern gardens than mine), you’re in. At least that’s my observation after maybe 15 years 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 basically 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, starting in late March or early April here 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: with sepals and nectaries (the yellow center early pollinators appreciate) and their stemlessness, or acaulescence (true of niger and the orientalis or x hybridus 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, where they get lots of sun winter through spring, and the orientalis hybrids (more properly called Helleborus x hybridus types) are also good nearly evergreen groundcovers, even in my cold zone. In the North where I garden, those hybrids can take more sun than you’d think; what I’d call part sun or bright shade, and in fact in the deepest, darkest spots may flower poorly. Breeder Judith Knott Tyler explains.
They will even tolerate dry shade once established (though blooms and overall vigor will be better in less-abusive conditions, in my experience). Watering the plants in the absence of rainfall, especially when they are setting next year’s buds in late spring and summer, seems only kind and sensible. As mentioned, watering the first year in the ground is very important; these plants have big root systems, and need help settling in.
If you buy a flowering-sized plant in a nursery pot and transplant it, it may skip bloom the next year. Don’t panic. When transplanting, loosen the roots first to help them get going in their new home.
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 grow under black walnuts, but I can neither confirm nor deny.)
You should cut back the foliage of the orientalis or x hybridus types 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; last years foliage will fade as the new crop appears, if you don’t cut it off first.
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 extra-early H. niger maybe 20 years ago, and 15 years ago moved on to the others. I am endlessly fascinated to see what these sexy perennials will do in the way of cross-pollinating one another to create new plant heights, flower sizes, shapes and color combinations.
My x hybridus phase started with only yellow and black 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?). Now I have a menagerie, some of which are shown below.
More opening daily; updates to come. Enjoy. (Use the thumbnails to toggle between slides, or hover your cursor midway up the right or left edge of any large photo till navigational arrows display.)
expert hellebore information and sources:
- In Virginia, Pine Knot Farms’ Dick and Judith Tyler , or my interview with Judith
- Northwest Garden Nursery, Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne
- Tony Avent of Plant Delights on growing hellebores