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Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Hellebores (page 2 of 2)

by Jack Ruttle

The Best Hellebores

There are 20 or so hellebore species. Most come from countries on the northern rim of the Mediterranean, especially in the Balkan Peninsula and into the Caucasian Mountains. Plant collectors are busy experimenting with and hybridizing these species. For gardeners, though, the four kinds described in detail here are the most widely adaptable and easiest to grow.

All hellebores fall into two very distinct groups. Plants of one kind have a stalk that holds leaves, ending in flower buds at the top. This type can't be propagated by division. The plant gets larger by making new stalks that arise just above ground level from the first stem that formed, which becomes like a crown. All stems flower at the end of their second winter. It's best to cut them back close to the base of the plant after the seeds have matured (or earlier if you don't want seedlings). Mature plants may have six or eight stems at a given time.

The other kind, which can be divided, sends up individual leaves and flower stalks separately from rhizomes underground. Each leaf and each flower cluster has its own stem. The plants get bigger as the rhizomes branch and spread. Some gardeners remove any foliage that has become tattered or weather-worn late in winter just before the flower st emerge. New leaves emerge soon after. This group of hellebores also self-sows generously in moist humus-rich soil.

Hellebores are often classified as shade-loving plants, and they thrive with some protection from the hottest sun of the day in summer. The more dependable the water supply, the more sun they can take. In nature, they often grow among tall grasses, perennials or in hedgerows where the taller plants provide summer shade. Take this cue and plant them among tall perennials in sunny borders or with ornamental grasses. While hellebores grow in a wide range of garden soils, they do best in a neutral to slightly alkaline environment.

Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican hellebore). Best for southern California, this species tolerates more sun and drier conditions than other hellebores. Stems grow from the basal crown and get two to three feet tall, topped with large clusters of pale green nodding flowers in late winter and early spring. Mature plants can be three feet across. The large leaves are a handsome blue-green. The plant is hardy through zone 6, but the leaves can suffer winter damage even in northern zone 8.

H. foetidus (stinking hellebore). This is one of the hardiest and most versatile of all hellebores. It gets its name because crushed leaves, stems and sometimes flowers emit a strange, catlike odor. It is widely adapted, growing in hardiness zones 5 to 9, and is an excellent choice for dry shade. The dark green leaves have four to nine narrow leaflets. Individual stalks get about two feet tall, and mature plants spread three feet across. The flowers appear in large clusters at the top of the stalks. Each one is pale green, occasionally edged with purple and about an inch across. The buds begin to appear in early winter and provide interest as they open slowly over the next three months.

H. niger (Christmas rose). Native to the mountains of Europe, this species needs some winter cold to really thrive, so it grows best in zones 3 to 8 in the U.S. It prefers light shade and moist, slightly alkaline soil. Typically, it flowers in late winter, sometimes even later than its cousin the Lenten rose. Evergreen leaves, which grow from rhizomes, often suffer winter damage. The flowers (one to three per stem) are a pure white that ages into rose.

H. orientalis (Lenten rose). These hellebores, which are almost always hybrids, are the best choice for most gardeners. They are hardy from zones 4 to 9, and their leaves take winter cold better than H. niger. The flowers come in the widest range of colors (white through pink, purple to yellow, as well as mottled bicolors), and they look good for a full two months. The Lenten rose is the easiest of all hellebores to transplant, and a single plant will spread quickly. It also self-sows quite readily.

Jack Ruttle is a former senior editor at National Gardening.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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