Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
May, 2008
Regional Report

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I love the combination of hellebores and bleeding hearts, especially when they're framed by delicate fern fronds.

Plant Hellebores for Winter Color

When I began gardening almost 30 years ago, I planted reliable, easy-care perennials and shied away from anything even remotely demanding. After years of getting dirt under my fingernails, my attitude changed. Now I love the challenge of growing plants that are reputedly difficult to satisfy.

I read somewhere that hellebores were finicky, so I planted my first hellebore in a sheltered spot and dared it to be difficult. It settled in quickly and bloomed within a year or two. In time I realized that much of what I had read about hellebores was nonsense. No challenge here, but by the time I came to that conclusion I had become attached to my not-so-difficult hellebore -- so much so that I added several more species to the planting bed.

Hellebores are Easy
The native habitats of most hellebores range from Western Europe into China, in areas where the soil is heavy and limestone is prevalent. That doesn't mean these plants need alkaline, heavy clay soil to do well. My hellebores continue to thrive in my humus-rich acidic soil. As for sun exposure, most hellebores prefer the partly shady conditions found in my woodland garden.

The trees that provide my hellebores with shade also take up much of the soil's available moisture, but the hellebores don't seem to mind. I water my hellebores only when planting them. Occasionally, I'll give my plants a dose of a well-balanced organic fertilizer, such as Plantone, either in fall when they come back into growth, or in late winter before they make another spurt of growth.

Attractive Traits
Some hellebores feature green flowers, such as H. dumetorum, which sports small, green, cup-shaped flowers in January or February on short stalks with leafy bracts. These are followed shortly by dark bronze, horseshoe-shaped leaves that later turn green and disappear in late summer.

H. orientalis, a plant commonly called Lenten rose, is a highly variable plant. Its flowers range in color from mostly creamy white to pale greenish white, and may either nod or face outward. The most winning trait is that many bear their flowers on erect stalks that rise above the foliage. They bloom early in my garden; I can almost always find a few fully opened flowers by Christmas.

There are three species with purple or near-black flowers. H. purpurascens is a treasure for its relatively large, cupped flowers that are a dusky violet overlaid with green. These plants bloom January into March in my garden. H. torquatus has finely dissected leaves and outward-facing flowers on upright stalks. The flower color may be purple or nearly black, and some are a combination of purple and black with greenish interiors and purple-black tinges on the exterior. The wonderful dark flower color and habit make this an attractive plant.

My most beautiful species plant is a form of H. atrorubens because of its flowers, which sport dark violet sepals and brilliant yellow stamens. Its small, slightly cupped flowers begin to open in winter as they appear above the soil and, when fully grown, face outward on upright stalks that rise to about 21 inches high. The leaves die away shortly before flowering begins, and new ones appear as the flower mature in late winter.

Dividing and Replanting
Hellebores should be divided and replanted in late summer or early fall when they are coming out of dormancy and before they begin to bloom. The best way to divide them is by cutting through the woody base with a knife or a pair of shears. When cutting, I make certain to get a bit of crown with a growth bud and a leaf stalk and some of the rhizome with roots attached. The growth bud and roots are essential; the leaf is not.

Winter in the Pacific Northwest can be dull and dreary, but if I were asked to make a list of the glories of my winter garden, hellebores would be at the top, along with cyclamen and crocuses.

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