Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
January, 2010
Regional Report

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Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper' is an early-flowering hellebore, blooming from November through February.

Get a Hankering for Hellebores

Mild weather has tempted me outdoors more than once this week to check on the many selections of hellebores I grow in the woodland garden. Truth be told, however, these plants don't care if it's freezing cold or unseasonably warm -- they're always among the season's most reliable bloomers.

Evergreen and long-lived, the distinctive hellebore fills an important niche in the winter and early spring garden. Depending on species, they open their lovely cupped or bell-shaped blooms between October and March, ornamenting the landscape with white, green, pink, purple, or (rarely) yellow flowers that persist until spring.

What looks like petals on these perennials is actually a ring of sepals, the outermost group of floral parts that protect the flower bud. The sepals don't fall as petals would, but remain on the plant for many months.

Hellebores look good in summer and autumn too. Even after the blooms have faded, they can be appreciated for the handsome foliage that is both abundant and lustrous. Palmate leaves, which spread open like fingers on an outstretched hand, form pleasing clumps that are either erect or sprawling.

Most all types of hellebores like humus-rich soil that stays slightly moist but is never soggy. One of the best things about this group, though, is that they become amazingly drought tolerant with age. This characteristic is ideal for conditions like those in my woodland garden, where summer-thirsty deciduous trees keep soil dry during the hottest months of the year.

While they deal quite nicely with winter sunshine, full or filtered shade is best for hellebores in summer, especially from midmorning to afternoon. Those grown in deep shade throughout the seasons, however, may become leggy and bloom poorly.

Hellebores are truly trouble-free, with virtually no pests or diseases where conditions are adequate. Root rot will always be a problem in wet soil, so ensure plants are sited for good drainage. In late winter, just before new foliage emerges, groom the plants to remove tattered, spotted, sunburned, or windburned leaves.

I've often seen hellebores thrive in spots where they receive little or no attention, defying neglect and even tolerating abuse. In fact, I recently read that they still persist at the 1940's Raleigh home of garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence, a college fraternity for more than 50 years.

It doesn't hurt that the group is poisonous, and thus unlikely to be ravaged by deer and voles; or that many of the species self-sow freely, producing large colonies of plants.

But perhaps best of all, there are as many hellebores to love, as there are reasons to grow them.

I cultivate Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis), Christmas roses (H. niger), bear's foot hellebores (H. foetidus), Corsican hellebores (H. argutifolius), and several recently introduced hybrids. Though I'm partial to simple forms, I'm also enthralled with newer plants that display richer and darker flower colors, spots and other markings, semi-double and double blooms, and taller and more upright stems.

Simply put, I like them all. Even the common Lenten rose, with its nodding, pale blooms, is a charmer.

But, I'm particularly fond of Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper', for its wonderful, very early flowers that stand on upright stems. Pure white blooms open continuously from November through February, and mature plants make an especially attractive mound of foliage, standing more than a foot tall and nearly 2 feet wide.

And I wouldn't want to do without Helleborus x hybridus 'Ivory Prince', either. Though parentage is uncertain, this perennial is graced with exceptional beauty. Blue-green foliage, lightly mottled with silver veining, and even its burgundy stems, play second fiddle to the rose-flushed buds that open in February and March to reveal ivory blooms tinged with pink and green.

Look for these favored selections, or any of the many others that are readily available. If you're like me, it won't be long until you're hankering for them all.

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