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 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.

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: 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:

  1. Mr. McGregor's Daughter says:

    Your Hellebores are beautiful! While Hellebores may be deer proof, they are not squirrel proof, as I discovered last year. The stupid squirrels clip off the bloom stalks and leave them lying on the ground. I now spray them with critter repellant.

  2. Country Gardener says:

    Just gorgeous. Thanks for those pictures, esp. on this disappointing return-to-winter day. I see blooms under the leaves of our hellebores, and that’s the first job, cutting them back, after this unseasonable spell passes. Thanks for the tip about growing them under walnuts. Might give that a try with some seedlings that are popping up in our hellebore patch.

  3. Molly says:

    I was worried my hellebores hadn’t survived the winter and the umpteenth move I put them through. But hoorah, they are finally opening up and are as elegant as ever. Love that plant, and love your photos.


  4. Linda P says:

    I love them but have not the luck that everyone seems to have with them. I went hellebore wild 6 years ago and purchased about a half dozen of all types that were on the market. I have only three surviving small plants. Not looking like your clumps or anyone else’s for that matter. I got mine from David Culp and Plant Delights. My zone is like yours and the place they are planted is simliar with the same light circumstances as well. I want to add more but they are not inexpensive . I’m not sure why mine lack vigor and have not muliplied. I even put down the proper supliments year after year. The past two years I have let them just do their thing. The are blooming now. I have only the orientalist varieties left now. Not has many flowers per plant, only one to three per plant. they were huge when I got them and they are a third of the size of the original purchase compared to the huge clumps I see in most gardens. The best clumps I have seen is in the national garden in DC.
    I wish they would take hold, they are one of my favorite looking of plants. I also really love their nature to change and breed which mine have not done at all.
    thanks for those great photos. It is the push I needed to try again.

  5. Linda P says:

    Thank you for the composting segment ! It is very detailed. The amount of material you have is similar to my situation and was fretting over how to deal with it and where to put it. I have been doing what you do for years and keep moving the pile as it’s in main view from all areas. I think you’re right about the bins which is what I thought I would use only many of them. They don’t work if you have too much material. The pile idea is what I have been doing so I guess keeping the rose stalks and peony branches out is the only difference, since they sometimes have mold or don’t break down.

  6. CovingtonKat says:

    Hi, Margaret! Love Love Love hellebores…and really enjoyed your slide show. I’m not sure how many different ones I have – maybe 20 or so – and I look forward to seeing them standing up and blooming so prettily in late winter. Mine, here in the PNW, have been blooming since February…and will continue at least thru this month. Any good tips for bringing some inside as cut flowers? I’ve tried floating the blooms in a shallow bowl, with some success, but how about a vase? Thanks for any ideas!

  7. Dee/reddirtramblings says:

    That was a beautiful slide show. I hope my young hellebores (three and four years old) one day look like yours. I really enjoyed that ethereal pink hybrid. How lovely it was with the back lighting.~~Dee

  8. Ailsa says:

    Here in Zone 4B (ever-changing it seems…) mine are not yet up, nevermind blooming, so it was lovely to see yours in all their glory! A peak outside just now revealed their soggy brown foliage from last year so there is clearly no anxiety up here about clipping all that nasty dead stuff off! I also love the dark purples. Years ago I planted a clump of both (H. niger and H. orientalis) and found the former succumbed to either too cold winters or my careless hacking about. I like to think it was the former. But the Orientals are definitely hardy for us and, like you say, are seemingly indestructible. I had also heard that they will live happily in dry shade along with Epimediums and Geranium maccrorhizum — good to know for planting difficult spots.

  9. Alison says:

    They are so spectacular!!!! Who cares if you have to lie on your back to look up at them to enjoy! LOL
    I have one I planted last year. It hasn’t bloomed yet, so I guess not this year?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Alison. Yes, they are tricky to photograph because of how they hang their heads, indeed. Nice to see you and do come again.

      @Trish: I sometimes gently scoop clods of soil out w/a trowel from around the parent plant and just plop them somewhere else in the shade, or wait until early fall and move them individually. I suppose waiting until the next year would be better, but with the oldest plants there just isn’t room, so at least thin the seedlings if you plan to leave them in place till the following spring,

  10. Tammy says:

    Your hellebores are absolutely gorgeous. Finally, I did something right because all three plants I planted (one, two? yrs ago) were full of blooms this year. They are a delight.

  11. Johanna says:

    How beautiful! You just want to go sit in the middle of all those hellebores and watch for the fairies — you just know the fairies live among all those wonderful flowers!

  12. Photo Buffet says:

    Visiting your site is like sunshine on my neck. I love it! Your photos are gorgeous, and I’ve developed a serious case of hellibore envy.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Photo Buffet. I like that: “Like sunshine on my neck.” That is about the nicest description ever, thank you…and stop back soon.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Melba. From what I have read in many sources, the orientalis hybrids are hardy to Zone 4; sounds like you are a little colder than a reliable 4. Of course, so many factors affect hardiness (snow cover or not, good drainage of moisture from the soil so a plant’s feet aren’t wet in winter, the exact exposure and so on…in other words, the microclimate of the spot you select on your property). Is there a botanical garden near you? Often that is the best resource for local answers…I don’t know where you are located so I can’t recommend a specific source or do better homework for you.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Gabriela, fellow WordPress-aholic (or so it appears on your blog!). Nice to meet you. Thanks for the encouragement, and please come by again soon.

  13. lisahutchurson says:

    I am SO glad you wrote about hellebores! For years, I’ve been wondering why gardeners in colder zones don’t grow more of them… For some awesome hellebores, check out Barry Glick’s collection at Sunshine Farm and Gardens (www.sunfarm.com). And Heronswood Nursery has a black one I’m dying for! I’ve always gotten them from friends – never ordered them from catalogs – and never seen them in independent garden cents. Are catalogs or Web sites the only way to get them?

  14. Sally says:

    Your hellebores are amazing. I have been unsuccessful with them so far. One poor lonely anemic looking plant with one bloom made it though this last winter. I have them in a couple of different places apparently not the right place.

    I love them so much I am going to keep trying. Any suggestions, I’m z4 in MN?

    Love your blog, your book and your gardens

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sally. They like rich, moist, well-drained soil best, though I have some that even fare in dry spots, truth be told. I think they take a few years to really settle down those big root systems of theirs and get happy, and I think they can be heavy feeders in some soils. Have you top-dressed with an organic fertilizer — now would be a good time. I assume you leave the foliage on until later winter? In our cold zones I think that’s best.

  15. elsa says:

    Only one out of 4 plants made it through the winter. It’s little shoots were sticking out of the ground yesterday, today they’re gone, I’m stumped I thought helllebores were poisonous, they dissappeared along with my first bloomers lungworts, could the culprits be rabbits?
    Love your blog Margaret, Elsa, Canada

    1. Margaret says:

      @Elsa: You are correct, technically, hellebores are poisonous. But does that mean no animal will try a bite? Perhaps not. Do you have deer or just smaller animals like rabbits?

  16. Kelly says:

    Love your hellebores. They have quickly become one of my favorite plants. Nothing else maintains such a long bloom season in my gardens. And with such little care!

  17. Jean says:

    I regularly find the leaves of hellebores neatly sliced off and lying beside the plants. This has destroyed a couple of plants. I find that poking twigs into the ground so the plants are surrounded, including above them, seems to deter whatever is doing it (I suspected a bird but don’t know which one). Any information on what may be doing this would be very welcome.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Jean. With birds I usually see other stuff (soil, mulch) strewn about a bit, when they are looking for insects or other food; not sure why a bird would go after a hellebore leaf and break it off.

      Are there any signs of tunnels around (voles?) or even chipmunks/squirrels? Do you have rabbits?

      And probably most of all: have you tried digging around in the early morning at the base of the affected plants to look for some kind of cutworm or other insect pest that works at night and hides by day?

  18. Judy says:

    I have mole and , or vole problems–they are simply running me crazy!!! I love the Hellebores, I am going to give them a try—-my question though is this—-I have 4 outside cats. You said the Hellebores are poisonous, will they hurt my cats?
    This is such a great website–I would never have known about it if I hadn’t seen you on Martha Stewart Thursday, I am going to go buy your book now!! LOVE–LOVE–
    this site!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Judy. So many garden plants are poisonous, technically — daffodils, for instance — but typically animals don’t eat them. Look at this list for instance of poisonous-to-livestock plants from Cornell…lots of things that grow all around us (marsh marigold, lobelia, milkweeds…). I know you cats aren’t barnyard animals, but you get my drift. My guy eats grasses — that’s what he craves — and just seems to know what’s OK. Not sure why. I think it’s trickier with houseplants, where it’s the only plants they come into contact with and might nibble on. Outside they have their choice of greens, and seem to gravitate toward good ones in my experience.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Paige. The hellebores are probably much happier as a result of that tree going…we have black walnuts on my road, too, and they seem to manage to fend off most other plant neighbors quite successfully. :)

  19. Valerie Gillman says:

    You could send your #12 (picotee) to tissue culture and share the beauty(hint). I’ve been to all the sources for hellebores on your list, and none come close in looks. Maybe I should start a patch of black and yellow orientalis and see what happens. Of course in fifteen years I probably won’t be able to see:O) I love the elongated petals and beautiful coloring!

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