Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
November, 2010
Regional Report

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Helleborus x hybridus 'Gold Finch' brings a bright touch of early spring to the Scott's Arboretum garden.

Captivating Hellebores

To continue the gardener's query theme from my last report, the second most frequently asked question is "What can I plant that deer won't eat?" One evergreen perennial always pops to mind, the large-leafed hellebore (Helleborus), a shade-lover with richly colorful flowers in early spring. Hellebores also tolerate some sun, so don't discount them for a sunny spot as well.

Mostly problem free, hellebores bloom from late winter to early spring (March to May) across the United States. Their drooping flowers may be pink, mauve, white, green, burgundy, yellow, black-purple, bi-colored, speckled and more. They last into the summer, becoming greener or darker with maturity. The Perennial Plant Association named hellebore its Plant of the Year for 2005.

In Elizabethan lore, hellebores and hollies planted near your door would keep your home free of evil spirits and witches. Hellebore was also thought to prevent evil spirits from bewitching animals, according to Frances Owens, docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library Garden in Washington, DC.

Beware though. Every part of the hellebore is poisonous. This is why deer don't browse the leaves. The name tells all. The genus name, Helleborus comes from the Greek "elein," meaning "to injure" and "bora," meaning "food," alluding to the plant's poisonous nature.

Hellebores Captivate
Love knows no danger. For plantsman and author David Culp, it was love at first sight. He vividly remembers being drawn to hellebores some 30 years ago in Georgia and outside his 1910 home in North Carolina. Now at home in southeastern Pennsylvania, Culp cultivates and breeds new strains of 'Brandywine Hybrids.'

"This love affair has been going on a long time," Culp said. "They come in every color except red and blue. I like all the forms- singles, doubles, semi-doubles. Once you fall under their spell, they're highly addictive. It's like falling in love. You can't get enough."

Barry Glick, aka Glicksterus maximus aka The Cyber-Plantsman, is so smitten, he's devoted more than six West Virginia acres to his 'Sunshine Selections'. He cultivates some 68,000 hellebores on the hills of Sunshine Farm & Gardens in Renick.

Culp and Glick have developed their own beautiful, intricate strains of the popular Lenten hellebore, Helleborus x hybridus. Both have traveled the world seeking to appreciate what's available, meet and share with those of like minds, and create their visions of the BEST.

Hellebores are in the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family. The most popular, Helleborus x hybridus, is commonly known as the Lenten Rose or Lenten Hellebore. (Another common name, Orientalis Hybrid, is no longer used since many of the hybrids have little or no H. orientalis in their lineage.) Its elegant hybrids and cultivars bloom from March into May. The 1 1/2"-inch to 3-inch flowers stand among green, leathery, palmate leaves. One plant can be 12" to 18" tall, 18" to 24" wide.

Interestingly, hellebore flowers don't have petals. Rather each flower has five colorful sepals surrounding bisexual flower parts. Sepals are the plant's adaptation to attract early season pollinators (honey bees, wasps) and to protect the plant's reproductive parts, explained Culp. Unlike petals, these sepals also actively photosynthesize, which is why they stay intact and darken through the season.

Other species include Helleborus niger, the white-flowered Christmas Rose; Helleborus viridis, the green hellebore; Helleborus argutifolius, the Corsican Hellebore; and Helleborus foetidus, the stinking hellebore.

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