Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
April, 2007
Regional Report

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Helleborus x hybridus offers many delicious color variations. (Photo courtesy of Pine Knot Farms)

Hellebores: Harbingers of Spring

The recent warm spell was a tonic for cold-weary New England gardeners, starved as we are for color and greenery instead of drab brown landscapes. Finally the parade of spring bloomers has begun, and while it would be hard to name a favorite because they are all wonderful, it's the hellebores that, in my view, offer the most exquisite flowers. And among the earliest and longest blooming.

I became hooked on hellebores, also known as Lenten roses or Christmas roses, a number of years ago when I started some plants from seed, and now their pink and rose nodding flowers begin blooming in my garden every spring just before the first of the daffodils open. Since the plants were hard to find locally two years ago, I went to the trouble to bring back two new varieties from the Garden Writers conference in Vancouver (which prompted the border agents to search all our belongings for suspicious plant material), and they are now in bloom with lovely white, up-facing flowers instead of the characteristic nodding ones.

Then last weekend I happened to be in the vicinity of Burpee's Heronswood Gardens in Fordhook, Pennsylvania, and lo and behold, hellebores were the featured plant, so several little gems rode back home with me. It's fun to bring plants home from your travels (a version of "the grass is greener on the other side"), but it's also necessary to look elsewhere for hellebores because the offerings are still limited at many local nurseries and garden centers. This in spite of the fact that Lenten rose was named the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2005 by the Perennial Plant Association.

Not only are hellebores among the first flowers to awaken in spring -- blooming in winter in warmer regions -- the foliage of some varieties stays green throughout the winter, even in our climate, where it's usually buried under the snow. Once the snow melts, there it is, eager to satisfy our longing for signs of life. A new abundance of glossy leaves will grow from the crown of the plant so it's good practice to cut off the old leaves to make room for new growth. The plants grow about 2 to 3 feet tall and spread as wide, with their large, deeply lobed leaves almost mulching the ground by themselves.

Flower Power
Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), Helleborus orientalis, and the hellebore hybrids (Helleborus x hybridus) now called Lenten rose, are the best types for northern gardeners, the easiest to find. They are all evergreen, and they offer the widest color range -- from deep purple to rose to pink to green to white. Because there is color variability even in the hybrids, you take your chances a bit unless you buy a plant in bloom, but some growers offer plants in the green category, or the pink category, the white category, etc. Flowers may be double, semi-double, picotee-edged, speckled, or bicolored -- all with decorative stamens and lasting up to three months in the garden.

The above-mentioned types are called "acaulescent," meaning the flower and leaf stems arise from the base of the plant. The "caulescent" types of hellebores have a very different appearance: flowers and foliage grow from sturdy central stems, plants are taller, flowers are smaller, and leaves tend to be long and narrow. The "stinking" hellebore (H. foetidus) -- so named for the scent the foliage leaves behind if you handle it -- is in this group, as are many others not hardy in New England.

Hellebores, which are in the Ranunculus family and native to Europe and Asia, prefer shade in warm regions, but we can grow them in sun to part shade. They nestle into a woodland garden with ease, but they are worthy of more prominence so I invite them to show off along my front walkway. Give them humus-rich, fertile soil, and make sure it's well-drained soil for they don't like wet feet.

You would think the foliage and flowers in winter and early spring would lure deer when little else is green or blooming, but luckily the leaves contain alkaloid toxins that deer find unpalatable. Usually.

Hellebores are sure to elicit "What's that beautiful flower?" from friends and neighbors, and when this happens, you can dig up some of the seedlings that pop up next to the mother plants to share the riches.

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