Late winter treasures

In mid-February the dull monotony of the winter garden is broken by blooming witch hazels, then snowdrops, crocus, iris, narcissus, and hellebores. Witch hazels bloom on bare stems, and of course the bulbs do not have woody stems at all. Hellebores are low growing, shrub-like perennials with evergreen foliage, though by late winter it is often weathered and tattered. Flower buds slowly emerge from the cold earth early in February, and by late in the month a few blooms will open in my shaded garden.

By the middle of March the floral display reaches its peak, and though they will persist into April, hellebores’ blooms are not fifty-five mile per hour stunners. The flowers are not drop dead gorgeous from across the garden, even when planted in masses, and in fact many are even a bit difficult to enjoy close up without some effort. The flowers of many hellebores nod downward so that the gardener must kneel and prop them up to be fully admired, though the blooms of some newer introductions stand more erect.

In my garden the hellebores have been planted in an area with thin, dry soil, and despite this less than ideal circumstance they thrive and seed themselves about so that there are now many seedlings that are indistinguishable from the ones I planted. Hellebores will thrive in more full sun than the spot I’ve chosen, and prefer a deeper, well drained soil (and which plants don’t), but often plants must cope with what they’re given, and hellebores have handled this with ease.

The small herd of deer that rests during daylight hours in the thicket just a few paces from the hellebores does not bother the alkaloid, bitter tasting foliage at all, though their path through the neighborhood passes within a few feet of the colony.

The nomenclature of hellebores is confusing at best, but I have been encouraged that taxonomists consider just about every plant in commerce to be a hybrid (Helleborus x hybridus). Hellebores cross so readily that it is nearly impossible to trace their genetics, and many are sold as “strains”, meaning that the grower has selected seedlings that are genetically dissimilar, but similar in flower color and appearance. These are then crossed, and the resulting seedlings have a greater chance of also being similar in color and growth. Since the seedlings are not of identical genetics, they must be lumped together as a strain. No matter, the hellebore seedlings are nearly identical, and if the gardener purchases while the plants are blooming then there is little danger of making a poor selection.

Care for hellebores is minimal, with no pest or disease problems. I will cut back the ratty foliage every year or two, as the flower buds push a few inches through the ground, but that’s all. Some seedlings will be transplanted after flowering, or in the autumn, or whenever I get around to it. Seeds from the hellebores will often stray a good distance from the colony, swept up in the wash of rainwater draining off a nearby patio. The seedlings pop up through leaf litter and twigs that accumulate at forest’s edge, and they’re easily popped from the ground to move to the garden.

Now, I can’t recall which plants were purchased from the garden center, and which were seedlings, for both are vigorous and flower equally well. Whenever I see a unique bloom in the garden center (and there are delicious new plants introduced each year), I must add it to my little colony of hellebores, and soon seedlings from these will join the others in this delightful collection of late winter bloomers.Hellebores

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve been considering buying some Pieris ‘Katsura’ to plant in large pots and via my googling efforts wound up at a blog I realized I knew well—-yours! Needless to say, I’ve been wandering your other posts and now have a hellebores question.
    I’ve NEVER grown hellebores up north or here in FL. Do you have any idea what month they might bloom here in zone 10?

    have a nice thanksgiving!

    1. Dave says:

      References give zones 6 though 9 as best suited for hellebores. I suspect they require a longer cooling period to set flower buds. In the absence of cold temperatures it’s impossible to project when, or if they will flower. With a lack of adequate cold it is most likely that if they flower, it will be late rather than early.

      The second problem is the number of warm days, which is more likely to encourage disease or fungus problems.

      With all the reasons why not, there is every reason to try to push the hardiness zone. I would start with larger plants with more established roots, either a one gallon pot or heavy bare root division, and they should be planted in the coolest, shadiest spot you can find. Good luck.

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