Before the wisteria blooms and daffodils begin their spring-time dance, and before the tulips turn your head, hellebores will begin a celebration in the garden as the harbinger of late winter.
Nestled in a woodland setting in Clarksville, VA, near the North Carolina border, is Pine Knot Farms, a 60-acre parcel, with 5 acres as the home, garden, and hellebore nursery of Judith and Dick Tyler. In late winter, scores of hellebores begin to bloom, awaking this bucolic woodland setting.
In 1983, the Tylers opened a nursery on the farm that has been in Judith’s family for five generations offering choice perennials for shade gardens, including hellebores. At one time, Pine Knot Farms sold 2,000 different kinds of perennials. But a trip to England changed that for the Tylers.
In the early 1990’s, Judith and Dick visited English gardens where they saw what was happening with hellebore breeding and decided to put their focus on just these plants. Judith remembers, “Once we saw all the advancements in hellebore breeding, we wanted to be a part of it, so we started over.” Since that time, Judith and Dick have been back to Europe 20 times to bring back stock.
Today the winter landscape at Pine Knot Farms is ensconced with such a spectator show of winter-blooming flowers, warning winter their days are numbered, it became a cause for celebration.
An annual event
The Tylers open their hellebore nursery to as many friends as there are flowers. Arriving from several states, first time visitors and long time collectors come to walk the gardens, herald the hellebores, and purchase a few plants for their own shady gardens.
Natural garden paths are lined with fallen limbs, enhancing the woodland setting. The leafless canopy of native hardwoods lets in low-angled, winter light, spotlighting the nodding heads of the hellebore flowers.
The paths bisect beds of hellebores the Tylers hybridized–seed strains of the Lenten Rose known as Helleborus ×hybridus–PK Select, a subtle single flower, and Pine Knot’s Southern Belles, including forms with a semi-double flower, known as the anemone form, and a double selection, simply known as a double form. Both doubles have sepals that resemble the stylish, old-fashioned skirts once worn by southern belles. Since these are seed strains and not cultivars, they are merely identified by color groups, known as bicolor, darks, red, green, picotee (having a basic color with a margin of a different color), pink, white, as well as apricot, and rhubarb custard.
Pine Knot Farms also grows other sought after species such as Helleborus argutifolius, H. atrorubens, H. cyclophyllus, H. dumetorum, H. foetidus, H. lividus, H. niger, as well as interspecies hybrids like H. ×ballardiae, H. ×ericsmithii, and H. ×nigercors.
Hellebore leaves hover the ground with plants 18-inches tall and 12 -inches wide. Mature plants can have 300 to 400 blooms, each 2-inches wide making the winter-weary gardener mindful of the season. Often the blooms in February will last through May. “What we think of as hellebore flowers are similar to bracts, like Poinsettias,” says Judith. This gives the effect of long lasting flowers. Hellebores are shade tolerant, specially in the south, but tolerate a wide range of light conditions. An ideal location for hellebores is in the shade of deciduous trees.
If brightening the winter landscape with flowers wasn’t enough, it’s also good to know you won’t have to share your plants with either rabbits or deer. And you won’t need to divide your hellebores like other perennials, plus there is no spraying required.
While it seems hellebores thrive on neglect, you may want to cut back the dying foliage in January to better see the flowers. Come spring, bright green foliage will emerge.
Hellebores are not fond of clay and prefer well drained rich soil; however they will take dry conditions once established. Most hellebore hybrids, such as PK Select and Southern Belles, thrive in zones 4-9. The interspecies, like H. ×ericsmithii, are still relativity new to the market and have only been reported reliably hardy in zones 5-7.
Due to the large number of visitors, the Tylers open 2 weekends each year; the last weekend of February and the first weekend of March. Everyone is welcome. “The hellebores are at their peak around this time, giving us an excuse to celebrate,” says Judith.
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.
Helen Yoest is a curious gardener – curious about plants, soil, design, and how others use these to create their gardens at home. She is also curious about what plants do for us today in the here and now, but also about their history and lore. Plants have a colorful past.
As an award winning freelance writer and garden stylist, Helen has traveled the world visiting public and private gardens so she can step into the dream that was once just an imagination. Her work has appeared in Country Gardens, Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living, Carolina Gardener, and many others, including her work as the national gardening expert forAnswers.com. Helen is also the author of Plants With Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers, & Veggies in Your Garden (2014, St. Lynn’s Press) and Gardening with Confidence, 50 Ways to Add Style for Personal Creativity (2012, GWC Press).
Helen curates garden art, serves on the board of the JC Raulston Arboretum, is past Regional Representative of the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour and opens her garden annually, and is an honorary member of Pi Alpha Xi, the national honor society for floriculture, landscape horticulture and ornamental horticulture. Helen lives in Raleigh, N.C., tending to her half-acre wildlife habitat, her husband, and their three beautiful children.