Not so cold for hellebores

Never mind the cold. Despite the recent stretch of cold temperatures in late January, the garden’s hellbores (Helleborus orientalis. H. niger, and hybrids) continue to bloom, and flowers that were opened partially were unscathed by the cold. On the other hand, the flowers of hybrid camellias turned to brown mush on the first night of temperatures in the low teens. Hellebore in mid January

With cold weather the foliage of hellebores has begun to look a bit haggard, and perhaps this will be the motivation I need to cut it back to the ground. In the past this was an annual ritual, but with warm winters the foliage is passable enough to forego this chore. Now, with two (and maybe three) year old foliage, the flowers are barely evident. If the ragged foliage is removed it is best to do it before late February when the new foliage starts to grow and is more easily injured than if the pruning is accomplished in January.

The best time to cut the foliage is a month ago, before the flower buds have swollen, and certainly before the flowers have gotten in the way. But, at the time I had no plans to cut them back, so perhaps this is a good project for tomorrow, when temperatures are above freezing and the leaves can be bunched and cut while avoiding the flowers and new growth (and frostbite). Hellebore in mid January

It seems a shame to cut back perfectly acceptable foliage that hardly shows signs of winter damage, but the leathery leaves are likely to deteriorate further, and the reward is that the flowers stand out to be enjoyed so much more conveniently. The flowers often persist through much of March, and then within several weeks the foliage is back, looking as full as ever, but much fresher than the leaves that were pruned away.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    Dave….I’ll be planting some hellebores and wood poppies as soon as they arrive in nearby nurseries, including yours. Looking forward to dotting our wooded areas with these beautiful perennials. I assume they won’t bloom until perhaps the third year? I also assume they spread about like Pacysandria (sp?) which we already have. When you cut away the “leathery leaves” are you grabbing a bunch and whacking them with grass shears? Do the deer bother your hellebores?

    1. Dave says:

      Hellebores flower at a young age, so plants sold in garden centers are likely to be sold in bloom. Hellebores spread by seed rather than rhizomes, unlike pachysandra. Many seedling appear within a couple feet of the parent plant, but a few strays pop up a distance away where rainwater runoff has carried them. I’ve not found hellebore seedlings to be anything but welcome. I have twenty, maybe thirty clumps of various hellebores and seedlings, and I’d welcome that many more seedlings.

      I usually cut the weathered foliage with pruners, though garden scissors work as well or better. I gather the foliage and cut just above where I can see the flowers, and then clean up any stray stems. Deer completely ignore hellebores. This is one of the few dependably deer resistant plants that I don’t bother spraying with a repellent.

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