We’re nearly halfway into spring, and I’m wondering if your spring garden is missing something. Did you have anything flowering in the garden in March? You could have had an entire garden flowering in March. Are you growing tired of the same old daffodils, crocus, snowdrops and the like? Well I’ve got a plant for you that the deer won’t touch, and these gems will begin to flower in March and continue well through April. Voles won’t bother them either.
Once known as the Christmas rose and the Lenten rose, they aren’t roses at all but more closely related to the buttercup. For most of us, the resemblance is well, closer to a rose, but not really. The plant is a hardy perennial known as the hellebore, and it just needs to be planted, given a little time to establish and then ignored as it returns every year to brighten the early garden and probably amaze you. Even if we get a late snow, the flowers will push through and bloom undaunted. Drought? No problem. A dry spot under an oak tree? Not a challenge at all.
I’d heard about the hellebores but had never grown them or seen them until about 20 years ago when I was cleaning up a garden at work that we call the “finger” border because it’s like a long arm with gardens reaching out of it like fingers. It was March, and I was removing the fallen leaves of the previous fall when I began to spot 1- to 2-inch flower buds being pushed up from the ground on stiff stems. The next day the buds opened into flowers that seemed a bit shy and didn’t want to show their smiling faces. But sure enough, each day more of the flowers opened and in a period of a week the entire understory of the garden was covered with white, pink and rose flowers.
As it turned out, these hellebores were pretty common ones but still pretty early and a delightful surprise. The discovery sent me to the books and catalogs where I found that the hellebores are mostly evergreen perennials where the foliage dies back late in the winter or early in the spring just as the new flowers appear. In some years, the new foliage is just like us, wanting to get up and out and see some sun. But in years like this when we had some late freeze-ups, that foliage can get burned and crisp a bit. When fully open, the leaves are divided into seven to nine segments with an umbrella-like shape.
But not to worry. Even if the flowers get bitten by a cold snap, they simply laugh it off, slow down and still emerge in full bloom as soon as it warms again. The foliage remains green and tidy right through the summer, fall and into the winter, so the plant even provides a second function as a bit of a ground cover when planted in masses.
The problem, though, was that the hellebores were a bit boring. Yes, they flowered really early and are one of the true harbingers of spring, but more often than not the flowers would face down at the ground and not upright or even outright. You could clearly see that they were flowering but you only got a good look at the flowers if you were down on your knees. So, it was a garden plant of interest but one of unrealized potential.
That began to change about 20 to 25 years ago when a number of British breeders began in earnest to do some cross-pollination of varieties, and some plant hunters discovered more garden candidates in other parts of Europe, Syria and China. The breeders found that it was actually quicker to produce seeds through careful pollination than to multiply the plants by dividing them and these days the modern technique of tissue culture has come into play as well.
As a result, we now have more than 60 varieties of hellebores available. The color range has moved from the subtler pinks, whites and near reds to a range of colors that include yellow, purple that’s nearly black, rose, red, bicolors and doubles. And yes, even one that looks like an old-fashioned rose and goes by the name True Love.
The flowers are now classified into four forms. The anemone-centered has flowers with nectaries that are slightly enlarged and colored to form a noticeable ruff around the center of the flower. The double-flowered types have nectaries that have reverted to their origins as petals so that the flowers have up to 30 “petals” and no nectaries at all. The Picotee can have pale flowers with red or purple edging on the petals and sometimes purple vanes and purple nectaries. Lastly, there is the spotted group that can have single or double flowers with spotting on the inside. All four of these forms can be found as named varieties but sold as Helleborus hybridus.
For those who need more choices and want to establish a more exotic collection, you can get into the Helleborus species as opposed to the hybrids. There are about 25 species including H. abchasicus, which has green flowers, and others with different flower forms and habits such as H. foetidus, which can grow up to 3 feet tall while most of the hybrids top out around 18 inches.
My collection includes only about 25 plants and all are hybrids. I started this collection about 10 years ago, and I realized this year what incredible plants these are, especially after a drab and gray winter. And, oh yes, did I mention the deer won’t touch them? I need lots more!
Do some reading, though, because if you buy the old standards you’ll be less than enthused by the flowers, which won’t look at you. The newer varieties have flowers that at least face upward a bit, and some even look toward the sky. Local garden centers carry a limited selection of these plants and for the real plant enthusiast Plant Delights Nursery has a great selection online and Bluestone Perennials has some of the newer hybrids that are more common. Other catalogs will have a few varieties, but you’ll find that nurseries like Plant Delights offer the widest range. There’s a great online article on these plants here https://bit.ly/2XKZNTM that also had additional links.
A few growing notes. Take care of the plants the first year. Don’t coddle them but don’t let them wither and shrivel in a summer drought. As a rule, they like some shade or dappled shade and once established they really need no care at all, not even feeding. The soil should be rich and on the acid side, but they may resent constantly wet spots. After a few years the plants can be divided in the fall, but you may have more fun collecting the seed. Collect the seed in late summer and sow them in pots sunken in the garden. Seeds need to overwinter outside and will germinate the following spring. Seedlings rarely come true as the parents are noted as being promiscuous.
So far, my favorite hybrids are Painted Doubles, Amber Gem, Rio Carnival, Royal Carnival, Harlequin Gem and Rose Quartz. My collection is limited, though, so these are only the ones that have worked for me so far. You’ll probably want to try trios of ones you like then add once you see how they do. Or go crazy and do a mass planting. Keep growing.
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One fine body…