Hellebores Offer Attractive, Sculptured Foliage and Flowers That Bloom in Winter
Feb 11, 2016 10:12PM
For most Texans, winter is a time of bare trees and dormant lawns. Many folks defy the dreariness of winter by bringing color into their landscapes through such cool-season annuals as pansies. Others revel in the winter blooms of camellias. Few gardeners, though, have discovered the thrill of an herbaceous perennial that offers year-round, attractive, sculptured foliage and aristocratic flowers that bloom during the winter. Such are the hellebores!
Hellebores belong to the family Ranunculaceae, or the buttercup family. Other members of this family include columbine, anemones, clematis and ranunculus. Hellebores are native to the limestone soils of Europe, especially Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey. They are herbaceous (non-woody) perennials that grow from underground stems, or rhizomes. They are divided into two basic groups: caulescent (with stems) and acaulescent (without stems). The flowers consist of five petals and range in color from white to yellow, green, pink, purple and purple-black. Some flowers are solid colors, while others are speckled with contrasting colors. Hellebores are filled with alkaloid toxins and are therefore poisonous if eaten. However, their toxicity makes them prized as deer-resistant garden plants.
Hellebores make superb specimens for the woodland or shade garden. They grow well beneath the shade of deciduous trees in a well-drained, organic soil. Although they appreciate moisture, they do not tolerate poor drainage. Once established, they can even thrive in a dry shade situation, but would certainly need to be watered during a drought. After planting, leave hellebores undisturbed since the fleshy roots transplant badly and may take several years to establish before flowering again. Top-dress annually with organic matter such as compost or manure.
Because of their attractive, deeply-lobed, and often evergreen foliage, hellebores look especially good among ferns, hostas and other shade-loving perennials such as Turk’s cap, columbine and inland sea oats. Hellebores can make an attractive ground cover under which you can plant spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils. The hellebore foliage will show off the daffodil blooms in early spring but will mask their dying foliage in late spring. Some hellebore foliage can look a little ratty during the summer, but this can be remedied by interplanting with summer annuals that will hide the unsightly hellebore foliage. New foliage, however, will start coming up in early winter. That’s when you cut off the old growth to make room for the new.
Besides attractive foliage, hellebores sport beautiful flowers. The five-petaled flowers can come in such shapes as cupped, flat open, upfacing or bell-like where the colors are visible only on the back of the flowers. The same flowers can persist on the plant for up to two months and for this reason also make excellent cut flowers. The flowers will fall off naturally in July, by which time the seeds will have dropped to the ground. If you remove the flowers prematurely, of course, no seeds will drop to the ground. The self-sown seedlings come up directly around the mother plant and thus contribute to the overall size of the clump. These seedlings can be transplanted in spring.
Species and Cultivars
Among the hellebores with stems (caulescent), two species are of particular merit: Helleborus argutifolius and H. foetidus. Helleborus argutifolius sports gray-green, three-lobed leaves that are ornamental much of the year. In late winter and early spring, the plant produces clusters of light green flowers. This hellebore flowers on old stems, so don’t cut it back until after flowering. This species grows in zones 6 to10.
Helleborus foetidus is known as the “stinking hellebore” because its foliage leaves an unpleasant odor on your hands. The foliage is dark green and evergreen; each leaf is divided into seven to nine narrow segments. In early winter, the mass of foliage gives rise to 18 to 24-inch flower stems, which in turn produce green, bell-shaped flowers with a purple rim. Helleborus foetidus likes it dry during the summer; it will rot if given too much water in the summer. Furthermore, it reseeds better if kept dry. Zones 3 to 9.
Two hellebores without stems (acaulescent) do well in Texas gardens. The more popular and easier to grow is Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten rose – so named because it blooms from January to March and even April, during which time the season of Lent takes place. What people actually grow are hybrids of H. orientalis. Each hybrid makes a clump about 15 inches tall and 2 feet wide of thick, evergreen, hand-shaped foliage. Flowers appear in colors of white, green, pink and maroon. H. orientalis hybrids are heavy feeders; apply a water-soluble, high-nitrogen fertilizer three times during the year: in December as new foliage emerges, in March and again in June. In addition, top-dress annually with organic matter and mulch heavily. Zones 4 to 9.
Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is not as easy to grow in the South as the Lenten rose, but many gardeners manage to grow it successfully. This is the species that has naturalized and done quite well in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. H. niger has dark green, smooth, evergreen leaves. The pure white flowers appear from late December to March. Zones 3 to 9.
A cross between H. orientalis and H. niger is one called Royal Heritage. This cultivar produces flowers that are dark purple, wine, pink and bi-color.
The attractive, evergreen foliage and aristocratic flowers of hellebores give you two reasons to add them to your palette of plants. Plan now to enhance your shade garden and enliven the winter and early spring months by incorporating some of these gorgeous perennials in your landscape.
Written by Steve Huddleston, Senior horticulturist at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and co-author of Easy Gardens for North Central Texas.