The little hellebore that could


The south facing garden is sandwiched between the house and towering tulip poplars and maples so that only a bare amount of sunlight reaches the garden floor. The soil is choked with roots, and only with great effort is a hole dug to add new plants to this dry, shaded garden.

A shallow, rock lined depression winds through this parched garden, channeling rainwater from the house’s downspouts to a small spring fed creek that originates only a few steps beyond the garden’s border. The stones prevent the thin soil from eroding in summer’s storms, and on each side of the often dry depression are plump hellebores that have managed nicely despite the inhospitable environment.

As hellebores will do, these have seeded themselves about, some inexplicably up the slight incline towards the house, and others inevitably swept downhill by the rushing rainwater. The seedlings look much like their parents, with similar foliage and blooms.

One particular hellebore seedling made its way up the gradual slope and across a stone path to settle in the shade of a large ‘Burgundy Lace’ Japanese maple. Here, the soil is bound less by roots, but the shade is deeper. In all respects this little hellebore is indistinguishable from its parent eight paces to the other side of the path. Except today.

With temperatures much warmer than usual for weeks through December, and several moderately warm January days, the buds of all the hellebores in the garden have swelled, but only this one has opened into fully formed blooms. There are other hellebores close by, both youngsters and fat old clumps in similar soil and winter sun filtered through the trees, but they will only flower with another ten days of warmth. This one young plant blooms alone, with several flowers and a few buds that are opened halfway.

There are gardeners who shriek and exclaim that certainly these flowers will be destroyed in the next freeze, but one cold night passes, then another with no injury. Hellebores usually begin to flower in the garden by the third week of February, and a few years ago when they were blanketed by snow six weeks they did not bloom until the first week of March.

The late February blooms are often subject to extreme low temperatures without a problem, and I expect that the mid January flowers will also escape without damage.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tiff says:

    Most excellent. How nice to see adaptation working.

    Now, how can I order one? 🙂

    1. Dave says:

      The number of recent hellebore introductions is amazing. On most older varieties the flowers nod down so that they must be lifted to enjoy (or to photograph). Many newer ones have upward facing blooms, and there are many outstanding color variations. Hellebores have become fairly common in garden centers, but beyond basic offerings it could be necessary to shop online. Pine Knot Farms, in southern Virginia, is one of the top local breeders, listing many exceptional hellebores, and there are many more outstanding sources available.

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