Hellebores also known as Christmas or Lenten Roses are wonderful additions to a shade garden. In this area, their green leaves show through the snow all winter and in very early spring they bloom with flowers in many colors from whites to deep purple and many shades in between. They are perfect for the busy gardener as once they are established they require little care and will live for many years.
There are several species of hellebores that can be grown in the garden, but the most common ones are Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, and Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten rose. Their names give a hint as to when they bloom. It is only in the last few years that hellebores have become common in nursery and garden centers. Careful breeding to ensure flower color and tissue culture techniques have allowed nurseries to grow plants with reliable colored flowers. In the last ten years or so cross breeding between species has produced a whole palette of new colors and, double and even triple flowers.
Hellebores grow in clumps; most varieties are about 12 to 15 inches tall and wide. The leaves are dark green and palmate, that is the leaves have multiple fingers similar to a buckeye leaf. The flowers of older varieties are cup shaped and face downward, but more recent hybrids may have flatter flowers that face outward. Hellebores come in a wide variety of colors many with spots of darker colors or dark borders. The flowers are very long lasting, often staying on the plant for six weeks or more.
If you are interested in specific colors it is best to buy plants in the early spring when you can purchase the exact colors you want. But be aware, hellebores self seed; unless all your plants are the same color the resulting seedling will likely not be true to the parent colors. Native hellebore flowers tend to face downward as they are pollinated in the early spring by crawling insects and small animals scurrying by. They set seed in pods which burst sending seeds over the ground. In a good location large numbers of seedlings may germinate the next spring. It takes two to three years for the seedlings to bloom, but hellebores can make excellent evergreen ground cover for shady areas if given time.
Most hellebores are native to alkaline meadows in the mountains of Eastern Europe, but adapt well to more acid soil and thrive in shade. They can withstand some drought, and even sun, but they do better in a shade garden with regular watering. They will not grow in wet areas. Hellebores will easily survive our winters, and the common varieties will remain green even in the snow. However, their leaves often look scraggly in the spring, and cutting last year’s leaves to the ground will encourage new growth and allow the flowers to show above the new foliage. Some fertilizer will be appreciated.
Hellebores are members of the buttercup family and contain toxic alkaloids, which explain why they are one of our deer resistant plants. The plants were used for medicinal purposes in ancient times, but because of their toxicity, in modern gardens it is best to just to be grateful for the friendly flowers that signal spring is coming. Plant a few in your shade garden, as long as the soil is well drained, and you should have plants that take little care and last for years.
For more information on home, lawn, indoor, or outdoor garden care and tips, as well as other garden topics, visit www.ohioline.com and click on the Yard and Garden link, or call the OSU Extension, Butler County, at (513) 887-3722, or in Middletown at (513) 424-5351, ext. #3722.
News Release provided by Kathy Maurer.