I was an early adaptor to the hellebore. My gardening neighbor Judy Kinney turned me on to them in 1988, just when hellebores were taking the gardening community by storm. What struck me the most was that they bloomed in winter. I started a collection of what was then referred to universally as Hellebore orientalis. I wanted to build better winter-interest in my gardens, and today in my permanent home, I have a winter garden that I’m as proud of as when summer is in full song.
When I moved into my new home in 1997, I added a few new ones, mostly weeded seedlings I dug up doing during my monthly maintenance at the JC Raulston Arboretum. They grew and even flourished, but since most were planted in a bed I call the Woodland Too, which is lined in a boxwood border, formally edging my back gardens, it was hard to see these low-growing beauties, hidden behind the box, See below for hellebore culture information.
Later, as the garden matured, I wanted to add a ground cover to the strip of land in front of the box hedge. I was hoping to keep the look uniform and have it be somewhat tame, not a jumble mass. I spent a good deal of time (for me) deciding what to plant there, and decided on candytuft, Iberis sempervirens. My conditions were sun to part sun, transitional to xeric zone, and I had a desire for the ground cover to be evergreen. It was also late winter when I was making this decision, and pretty faces easily turn my head. It seemed candytuft were everywhere I turned. I considered hellebores briefly, but I quickly decided I couldn’t afford to cover the large area I needed covering. I was working with about 120 linear feet. I calculated that I needed 90 plants, which meant I was planting them tightly at 16 inch centers. Even wholesale, 90 of anything would be costly, but I got a good price on the Iberis, so it became even more attractive.
It looked OK the first year. Sort of. Although I like white flowers, it really never occurred to me that I don’t have any white accents or trim in the house or garden, other than the birdhouse and post, which was looking strange too. This was also before I put a roof on the Love Shack and added Tiny Tara, the chicken coop. When I did both, deep, rusted red became the dominant color in Helen’s Haven. But even in the absence of this, the candytuft looked stark in the landscape.
Nature took care of the problem for me. The next year it started to rain, and with the rain, the candytuft suffered. Candytuft is a reliable drought tolerant plant. Slowly, they began to die out from too much water. Then the most unexpected happen: the plants on the west side of the boxwood hedge blocked the light of the low growing ground cover, just enough to starve the needs of the Iberis. There wasn’t enough light to make this plant thrive. Within 2 years, all but 2 plants remained. I no longer hard a uniform plant in front of all the box. See, even a person who has gardened her whole life can make a bad plant choice.
At this point, I revisited hellebores but still dreaded the cost commitment. As luck with have it, I was on my annual girlfriend garden trip with Beth Jimenez (and friends), and we got to talking about what all maintenance Beth had planned to get her garden ready for the Garden Conservancy open days tour in the spring of 2014. One of the top chores on her list was to thin out her hellebore bed.
This was in June 2013. A very crazy time indeed to be transplanting hellebores, and it would have been except it was the year of the wettest summer on record. Of course I didn’t know that at the time. That was just dumb luck.
We agreed that after the trip, I would come and help her in the garden, thinning out hellebores and talking home all that I desired. Big ones too. I said I needed 90, and she said, “That will not be a problem.” Then she added, “There might be some aconite mixed in.” Bonus!
My good friend, Jude Tyler with Pine Knot Hellebore Farm, reminded me that large hellebores were not the easiest to transplant because of their root system, and to get a big root ball. I did.
It took two trips in my Honda mini-van to get all the hellebores home. Fortunately for me, I had pre-dug the holes before heading to Beth’s garden, so all I needed to do was drop them in their new space. Ninety were planted in a New York minute.
Beth got her space cleared out. I got a new bed of hellebores in a summer that I couldn’t have predicted the rains that were in store for me that summer. Another bonus! (In hindsight, it was really crazy to take that chance, but for the price, it was worth the risk.)
Once my van was loaded, we went back into the garden to look over our handy work and I got a surprise. I saw Juan’s art (her husband is an artist) for the first time. She was there the entire time, but I never noticed. Featuring this piece art was one of the reasons Beth wanted the bed thinned. Seeing her lie there for the first time was a special moment for me.
Below, is a picture of the hellebores planted out in Helen’s Haven. The photo was taken on July 3rd. You can tell by the grass, which receives no irrigation, just how rain-rich that summer was.
Now, 8 months later, last year’s leaves have been removed to highlight the flowers. The bed has been mulch, and these heavenly hellebores are ready to begin another year in Helen’s Haven.
What bed do you think looks better, the candytuft or the hellebores?
The excitement of growing hellebores is going beyond that of plant enthusiast and into the hands of the home gardener. The attraction of winter-blooming flowers, with foliage providing cover for wildlife, gives just 2 reasons to grow hellebores. Added reasons rein for those of you who live in areas with lots of deer. Hellebores are filled with alkaloid toxins, making them mildly toxic. Because of their toxicity, hellebores are typically left alone by deer, as well as bunnies and voles.
Hellebores are also drought tolerant, particularly when they are in their summer dormant phase.
Here is a listing of culture information to make the most of these winer-blooming beauties that add warmth to the cold garden bed.
Hellebores are split into two basic groups, acaulescent (without stems) and caulescent (with stems.) The caulescent species include Helleborus argutifolius, Helleborus foetidus, and Helleborus lividus. The acaulescent species include Helleborus orientalis, Helleborus niger, Helleborus purpurascens, Helleborus viridis, Helleborus atrorubens, and all others.
Hellebores prefer well-drained locations, and will tolerate a wide range of light conditions–ideally, planted in the shade of deciduous trees.
Plant hellebores as you would any perennial–dig a whole no deeper than the depth of the container-grown plant, and twice the width. Backfill with native soil. Hellebores can be planted in any season, even winter, as long as ground isn’t frozen.
Hellebores like an evenly moist location, but can take dry conditions once established. Water well during extended dry periods.
Hellebores are not heavy feeders, and should get what they need from an application of an organic mulch.
The actual hellebore blooms are small and non-showy. What you see “blooming” are actually bracts, similar to Poinsettias, giving an effect of blooms that last from February through May.
Color range tends toward the subtle with white, green, apricot, pink, and custard; but also in eye-catching colors such as red, picotee, bicolor, spotted, and nearly black.
18-inches tall and 12-inches wide.
Hellebores grow in a wide-range of US climates; most species are hardy in zones 4-9. The interspecies, such as H. ×ericsmithii, have been reported hardy in zones 5 – 7.
Garden Maintenance For Hellebore:
Each spring, Helleborus spp. will send up new foliage–after they flower. Many gardeners prefer to cut back the old foliage before the flower stalks appear, making it easier to dead leaf the old and to see the flowers in bloom. You may also want to cut the spent flowers (which still holds its form as a beautiful bract) before it goes to seed.
Hellebores are great addition to the winter landscape, and give value year round.