After my garden goes to sleep in the fall I look forward to the approach of winter. Tucked among the ferns are some of my favorite winter blooming perennials: hellebores. I love seeing the evergreen leaves throughout the year and excitedly wait for flowers to emerge during a season when there is little else in bloom.
With a wide array of colors and varieties, it is easy and fun to find the perfect hellebore for your garden. To start off hellebore season, I plant Hellebore niger cultivars from the Helleborus Gold Collection. A few great varieties are ‘Jacob’, ‘Jasper’ and ‘Jesko’, since they are the first to bloom, beginning in November and continuing through late winter. These cultivars are called the Christmas Rose for their bloom period during the Christmas season. The pure white flowers stand out on our grey winter days and provide a source of pollen for the few bees braving the weather. The blooms last a long time with the sepals (the botanical term for the colorful petals) fading to tones of pink.
Helleborus x hybrids are a later blooming group of hellebores, typically February to April, and are known as the Lenten Rose. This group includes some of my favorite varieties, such as Helleborus x hybridus ‘Vavavoom TM Pink’, which displays a beautiful double pink flower with burgundy speckles. Helleborus x ‘Anna’s Red’ features a beautiful single-petal bloom in deep burgundy/purple that faces upward.
Another favorite is Helleborus HONEYMOON TM ‘Spanish Flare’. These blooms offer yellow petals accented by a dark purple/red center. Simply stunning! Helleborus HONEYMOON TM ‘French Kiss’ produces beautiful white petals infused with pink and purple veining. Last but not least, is Helleborus x Spring Promise ‘Conny’. This hellebore blooms beautiful pure white petals that are finely spotted with reddish burgundy. The best way to be sure of the flower color is buy a plant in bloom.
Care & Culture
The best time to plant hellebores is from fall to early spring, but avoid planting when the ground is frozen. Not much fun for you or the plant. Plants experience greater stress when planted in hot weather, so be prepared to water thoroughly and often if planted in summer. Since hellebores are native to mountainous regions in Eurasia with limestone bedrock, they prefer alkaline to neutral soil. Adding lime at planting time helps balance our acidic soil pH. In the Pacific Northwest, hellebores are happiest growing in areas with part shade, dappled sun all day or morning sun. It’s best to avoid full sun locations to prevent burning the leaves.
I’ve learned from experience that if a hellebore doesn’t flower, there may be a few reasons to consider as to why. Few to no flowers may be caused by lack of light, especially if planted in heavy shade. Another possibility is lack of nutrition, which can be remedied by adding compost to the soil in autumn and fertilizing in late March or early September with an organic bloom booster such as Dr. Earth Rose and Flower Fertilizer. Burying the crown or planting too deep can also hinder flowering. Sometimes, you just need patience for your smaller plants to mature a little before they bloom!
A common topic of confusion is determining whether your hellebore is caulescent or acaulesent and how to prune it. Caulescent hellebores produce upright stems with leaves on the bottom and multiple flowers at the end. For example, Stinking Hellebores (Helleborus foetidus), Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus lividus are caulescent. The best time to deadhead caulescent hellebores is after the flowers have finished blooming, by removing the entire stem at the base.
Other hellebores such as Helleborus niger, Helleborus orientalis, and hybrid cultivars are acaulesent, meaning the leaves and flowers are produced on separate stems. Cutting back the leaves on acaulesent hellebores won’t affect the flowers. Choosing to prune out leaves on acaulesent hellebores before flowers emerge is based upon the preference of the gardener. Removing all of the older leaves before flowering provides an unobstructed view of the blossoms. Personally, I prefer to leave the older leaves, not only to add winter interest, but to protect new flower and leaf buds from unexpected cold temperatures. In early spring I remove the older leaves that look a little tattered after the winter.
Watching hellebore blossom through the cold and rainy months certainly helps chase away the winter blues as I begin to plan for the next year ahead!