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. The folks at Pine Knot Farms in VA are wonderful to work with and have many kinds of hellebores to choose from!…They often travel to plant shows and sales throughout the Mid Altantic East Coast…I bought about 12 plants from them at the Witch Hazel festival last Februrary at RareFind Nursery in Jackson, NJ (Another winner of a nursery that has a fabulous mail order business of rare periennials, shrubs and trees).
    Highly recommended.

  2. Jennifer in Hudson Valley says:

    Harumph. Why is my hellebore the same size it was when I bought it 5 years ago? It gets more beautiful blooms each year but it’s defintely not spreading. And I wish it would!

  3. Steve - Troy NY says:

    (I love the pictures) I have a Hellebore question. I have several near a bed of pachysandra, which is spreading. So far the Hellebore are doing fine at the periphery of that bed – already up and some flowers. Can they coexist easily, or do I have to intervene and make certain the Hellebore have some space, by making a “pachysandra-free buffer” around each plant. I saw the reference to surviving under Black Walnut, so I thought this might be similar. I would prefer if they could “just get along” and I like the combination that they are beginning to make. (It almost seems like I planned something) Thanks

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Steve. The pachysandra will probably try to dominate, so each year it’s probably best to just dig out the leading edge of it where it’s heading into the hellebores — to keep it in check, if you like the two near each other. The hellebores are very tough, but they won’t look so gorgeous all covered in pachy!

  4. Terri H. says:

    Margaret, I just planted some hellebores last week (the final week of September). I’m in the same zone as you, in Northern Illinois. I’m thinking maybe they won’t bloom this coming spring–they only have a couple of leaf-clusters each. What do the flowerbuds look like in the fall? Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Terri. No flower buds visible until late winter or early spring, when they push up through the old leaves. Don’t worry yet! :)

  5. Betsey says:

    I have been given a Helleborus”HGC Cinnamon Snow’; I live in Western NY. How do I care for (water, light, temperature) this most attractive plant until it goes outside in the spring?

    1. margaret says:

      I’d keep it on the cool side, Betsey, as cool as you can, since it’s really an outdoor plant that would be int he ground dormant at this time. When things are “forced” for indoor enjoyment it does take a lot of energy from them.

  6. Terri H. says:

    Hi, it’s Terri again… the hellebores I planted last fall haven’t sent up flower stalks yet. Should I be worried? Of course, they just got buried in snow anyway… I hope the squirrels didn’t get them. I’ve left last year’s foliage on for now.

  7. Candi says:

    My 3 year old hellebore is budding, like it has every year. I have never cut back the foliage and my flowers are always hiding. Is it to late to cut the leaves back now? I live in central Oregon and there is a good chance we will get more snow.

  8. Sharon Gorbacz says:

    I planted yet more hellebores last fall, to join ones I’d planted two years before. I have gotten foliage on the older plant before, but never any flowers, and never any spreading. They’re part of an underplanting scheme I’ve got for under an ornamental cherry, but are not doing what I thought they would… Any tips?

  9. trina colburn says:

    I love hellebores and agree with all the info on your post. Unfortunately I’m a young gardener with limited funds, and they tend to be one of the priciest in the store. Should I bite the bullet, or do you have other suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Trina. They generally will make lots of seedlings (once the parent plant is settled in and blooming well) so with a few plants that are well-grown, you can potentially get many, many “babies” to transplant to elsewhere in the garden and grow to blooming size.

      1. Betsy Wells says:

        Not all Hellebores produce seeds. Because I have so many Hellebores that reproduce prolifically, I have bought some. Every Spring I pull up hundreds of tiny seedlings coming up next to the plants. In spite of doing that, I have lots of Hellebores to give away.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Great article, as usual. I can confirm Hellebores are quite happy growing directly beneath a big ole black walnut.

  11. Sally says:

    I’m grieving the loss of my hellebores,
    Not. A. Single. One. survived the long cold winter. Do you think the 50+ days below zero had anything to do with it? I love them more than anything but, nothing :(

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sally. I don’t know which ones you tried (x hybridus aka orientalis types like most of the ones in the photos?) and where you are located. Also when they were planted (last fall, just before the horrible winter?). Multiple factors can add up to problems and even loss — e.g., if they got dry, or too wet (as in a low spot in a wet winter) or then super-cold soon after planting, before they were rooted in, etc.

  12. Michelle says:

    Good Wonderful Day, How tall will these plants get? I just bought some and I am so glad I discovered your site.

    Thank You!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Michelle — maybe to 12-18 inches up to 24 in some cases. Most of mine are about 18 inches high.

  13. Barbara says:

    Hi. Just picked some for a spring party and found the only way to display them is to cut the heads very close to the leaves and float them in a shallow dish of water. Just lovely to look at and they last for several days. We have a variety of colors from white/green, pale pink , to rich dark dark pink. They all look great together. You get lots of ohhh, and ahhhhhs!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Judith. You can do it, but remember: the rootball will be the size of a bushel basket if it’s an old plant. Not a small project. And they must be cut apart (with a large serrated knife, for instance). You can’t just tease the roots apart to divide as with a daylily. More info on growing them.

  14. Serena Govier says:

    Good day I have a hellebore plant in my garden and love it but I would like to know is if I can take the seed pods the it produces and plant them? It has taken me four years to find out what it was as it did not come with a tag.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Serena. You can indeed plant the fresh seed, but even better: why not let the plant do it, too? Usually hellebores are pretty generous about producing seedlings around themselves. I’d leave some of the faded flowers to self-sow when they like, and try some in a pot, too. Expert Graham Rice says how to do it on his website — but remember he is in England, so your seed may ripen slightly sooner (or not).

  15. Cambria Dillow says:

    Margaret, you had me at “get my ribbiting free newsletter”. Your froggie popped up and made me smile so I gladly joined!! I found, fell in love and bought my first hellebore plant recently. I have become obsessed with this uniquely beautiful plant. I repotted it in a larger container when I got home and placed it on our somewhat shady back patio because I wasn’t sure where I could plant it (we have to share our backyard with many deer and other woodsey creatures). It absolutely loves its location so I don’t want to upset it. I’m hoping that it can be happy forever in its container (Maryland winters can be brutal). What do you think? I did not realize this plant is poisonous. It kinda made me a bit happy for its survival because it really hurts sometimes when overnight our beautiful garden (that took a lot of planning and hard work) gets mowed down by our deer. I just bought another hellebore yesterday (I wanted to buy 20 more!!) and am thinking of placing it in my very sunny bedroom to enjoy. Have you ever brought your hellebores inside for a forever home? Well, I’m off to do some inside/outside gardening. Wish me luck. I’m planting about 10 more plants/shrubs. Hoping they will stay safe.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cambria, and thank you for the kind words. Hellebores need a real winter, meaning forget indoors as a home for them, and choose a place in the ground — unless your container is so big that their roots can get enough insulation (large volume of soil) above-ground in the pot. So a whiskey barrel might work, but your basic flower pot? No.

      Animals won’t bother it. I have dozens and dozens of big old plants here in shade and even moderately sunny spots, and they just go on and on, getting bigger and better with little care. Here is another article that may help you.

  16. Anna says:

    I got a hellebore from Lowes in the clearance section. They have pale while and pink flower. I transplanted them in high clay soil (that’s all I have around my house) and crossed my fingers. This was late April. Today, I checked on them and noticed that there were buds appearing at the base of the plant under the old, still green, leaves. Do I just leave them alone since it is so near winter? or should I go ahead and prune the older leaves away from the new growth?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anna. I would not remove the fading leaves (which provide a sort of living mulch at least a little bit) unless they are totally shot. Do your cleanup in late winter, when any snow (if you are in a snowy zone) melts.

  17. carol long says:

    I have one hellebore, not sure which kind, in a pot, very rootbound, compacted soil, and needs almost daily watering to keep from wilting. Can I cut back the roots to help this situation? I have the roots soaking in a bucket, an attempt to rectify the compacted soil, by watering off the old compacted soil, and replacing the old soil as much as possible. not sure of the species or variety. I have pics if it’s possible to send them via this webform.

    1. margaret says:

      Sounds like it needs much bigger quarters, rather than root-pruning (which I don’t think it will like, except to take off dead tissue). These plants have big root systems and need room to grow, so pot culture is tricky except when they are younger.

  18. Susan Peckitt says:

    I picked up a beautiful white Hellebore at Trader Joe’s a couple of weeks before Christmas. Here in Massachusetts, the ground is still soft from a very rainy December, though snow is predicted tomorrow. My house is dry and rather warm (65º). Would my plant be better off planted now or wintered over inside for a spring planting? It’s in full bloom, but some of the leaves are yellowing.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susan. The tricky part is that these plants have been acclimated to a greenhouse so they’re sort of all off their “normal” regimen. I think indoors till spring would be a stretch, so I’d probably plunge the plant, pot and all, in the ground.

  19. Nita says:

    I can attest to them growing quite happily under a black walnut. We have a very large one and many aggressive deer & they are very happy here!

  20. Batya Gorin says:

    Three Hellebores planted out in early Spring under a dogwood after spending the winter in flower in pots in the garage (gorgeous heavily flowering plants, but very root bound from trader joes of all places), kept their flowers for months, easily through May if not longer and finally I cut off the dead blooms but haven’t touched the leaves. Zone 6b/7a. Adequate moisture. 2 of the 3 now have very limp droopy stems and leaves. See no bugs. Third one looks fine and all other hellebores in nearby parts of the garden are healthy. No signs of new growth. Help? Thanks. Batya

  21. Vanessa says:

    I didn’t see where you answered the question if they can be grown in whiskey barrels and left out all year
    Also you mentioned mating, how does that happen?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Vanessa. I should have said cross-pollinating. Though they are self-fertile (don’t need another flower to pollinate them) they can cross, too. Details here. As far as whiskey barrels, depends which hellebores and which climate Zone and if you keep them watered and so on… the plant probably need to be one Zone hardier than where you are located to live above-ground (less root insulation) like that…and they will not want to dry out in tough times (which happens in pots sometimes). I don’t know where you are located and which ones you want to try that way.

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