Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2001
Regional Report

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Snow white Christmas roses make long-lasting cut flowers if the stem ends are seared in a flame to seal off the sap.

Hot Hellebores

Hellebores are everywhere these days. It seems that almost every gardening magazine has had an article on them this winter, their nodding flowers gracing many covers. Dozens of new varieties are being introduced, which is a sure sign of an "in" plant. You may already know about these great early-blooming perennials, but I want to throw in my own two cents' worth of experience, since they have been a favorite of mine for many years.

First Glimpses

My first exposure to hellebores was eighteen years ago in Helen Van Pelt Wilson's book The New Perennials Preferred. Wilson was one of the best garden writers of the twentieth century, and her descriptions of white Christmas (Helleborus niger) and pink Lenten (H. orientalis) roses, with their evergreen foliage, whetted my appetite. Later, on a visit to England, I saw swathes of several different types, all in glorious bloom. Many of these were hybrids of the Lenten rose in the full range of colors from palest pink to deepest wine red.

On my return home, I planted a Lenten rose under some deciduous shrubs on the south side of my house. It has flourished ever since. I've planted Christmas roses in two other gardens, and my mother has grown several in various spots in her yard, all with success.

Hellebore Care

Hellebores are low-maintenance plants. They do take several years to get established, but once they're growing strongly, they'll slowly make large clumps with a profusion of long-lasting blooms. Hellebores don't grow well when frequently transplanted, so choose your location with a degree of permanence in mind.

Although they grow adequately in loamy, well-drained garden soil, it makes sense to prepare the soil well. Incorporate plenty of leaf mold or compost as well as some sand into the planting area. The soil should feel coarse and light to the touch yet reasonably able to retain moisture. Hellebores grow better with a pH close to 7.0, so add lime if necessary.

Best Location

The most important consideration when planting hellebores is location. Following Wilson's recommendation of the ideal location (a cool, moist, lightly shaded situation with protection from north and west winds) has served me well. Setting them close to a wall that attracts early spring heat has encouraged earlier bloom. Combining hellebores with deciduous shrubs or trees allows winter sun to penetrate to the hellebores yet provides the necessary summer shade. Hellebores like evenly moist soil, but standing water is deadly.

Planting Time

Container-grown plants can be set out any time from spring to fall. When planting, arrange the roots more downward than spread out. For ongoing maintenance, add a 2-inch layer of organic mulch, such as compost or leaf mold, around the plants each year and fertilize lightly in spring. Trim off the frumpier-looking leaves in late winter. Letting the faded flowers remain on the plant in spring will sometimes lead to seed pods and new seedlings, which most hellebore lovers relish.

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