How to Grow and Care for Hellebores

Introduction to Hellebores

A welcome sight after a long winter, early-blooming hellebores herald the coming spring with nodding flowers in a range of colors. Flowering continues for a month or more, bringing color and life to the garden when most plants are still dormant. 

About Hellebores

Hellebores are sturdy, long-lived perennials with downward-facing flowers in shades of pink, plum, purple-black, maroon, white, green, and yellow, including some that are spotted and speckled. The colorful “flowers” consist of modified sepals that surround tiny, nectar-rich flowers in the center. 

Some types have “rose” in their common names, a nod to the saucer-shaped flowers that resemble wild roses. The leathery foliage, which is evergreen in moderate climates, forms a tidy clump that looks attractive even after the flowers fade. Most hellebores are 12” to 18” high and 18” to 24” wide at maturity.

Although there are about 20 species in the Helleborus genus, only a few are commonly grown in home gardens. 

Lenten rose (H. orientalis, aka Lenten hellebore) is a popular choice for home landscapes. In warm regions it blooms as early as January, poking up through frozen ground and snow. Elsewhere it blooms in spring, roughly coinciding with the Lent season. Most hellebore hybrids (Helleborus x hybridus) are bred from H. orientalis and have similar attributes.

Christmas rose (H. niger, aka black rose) blooms during the winter holidays in warm climates and in early spring in colder locales, producing large white flowers above the dark green foliage. The common name black rose refers to the dark-colored roots.

Stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) is a beautiful plant with an unfortunate name, which refers to the unpleasant smell of the foliage when bruised or crushed. In late winter or early spring, the plant produces an abundance of white, bell-shaped, 1” diameter flowers. 

Note: All parts of hellebore plants contain toxins that are harmful if ingested; keep them away from children and pets. Some people are sensitive to the sap, so wear gloves when handling the plants. 

Pronunciation: HEH-luh-bore

Growing Zones for Hellebores

Lenten rose (H. orientalis, aka Lenten hellebores) and hellebore hybrids (Helleborus x hybridus) are generally hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9.

Christmas rose (H. niger, aka black rose) is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8

Stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9.

Choosing a Site to Grow Hellebores

Hellebores are long-lived perennials that don’t take well to transplanting, so choose the planting site carefully. They like sun in the winter but need part shade in summer, making them an ideal choice for planting under deciduous trees. Choose a spot that’s protected from harsh winter wind. They require rich, moist, well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly alkaline pH. Avoid waterlogged soils, which invite root rot.

The ideal location is on a sheltered, wooded hillside where you can gaze up to enjoy the downward-facing flowers. Choose a spot where you can easily view the flowers on chilly days, perhaps outside a window or near a well-travelled path. The plants generally don’t do well in containers because the soil gets too warm in summer and too cold in winter. 

Planting Instructions for Hellebores

Although hellebores can be started from seed, the flowers on the resulting plants may vary due to the extensive hybridization that has taken place over many years. For more predictable flower shapes and colors, start with plants. 

Loosen soil to a depth of 8” and mix in plenty of compost. Set the plants so that the crown sits at or slightly below the soil line; avoid burying the crown too deeply as this can delay flower production. Soil should slope away from the plant to ensure good drainage. Space the plants generously — 18” to 24” apart — to allow plenty of room for the mature plants. Mulch with pine straw, shredded bark, or another organic mulch to conserve moisture and keep soil cool, keeping the mulch a few inches from stems to discourage rot.

Fertilizer for Hellebores

An annual application of compost beneath the plants usually supplies adequate nutrients. In poor soils the plants may benefit from supplemental fertilization. Avoid over-fertilizing, especially with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, which will result in abundant foliage at the expense of flowers. 

Hellebore Pests and Problems

When grown in a suitable site, hellebores are generally pest-free and they’re rarely bothered by grazing animals, such as deer. Too much summer sun can cause browned foliage and stunted growth. The plants are occasionally bothered by aphids, which can be controlled with insecticidal soap. Slugs can be kept in check by frequent hand-picking.

Ongoing Care for Hellebores

Water young plants as needed to keep soil moist but not saturated. Mature plants are relatively drought tolerant, though they benefit from watering during prolonged dry spells. Remove old foliage to keep plants looking tidy. 

Hellebores readily set seed and self-sow, so you may find seedlings sprouting nearby. However, because most commonly available hellebores are hybrids, the resulting plants may not closely resemble the parent plant. Hellebores rarely need dividing and will struggle to recover if the roots are disturbed.

Some popular Hellebores photos:
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