HARDINESS: Zones 4 to 8
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Near neutral
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Average
PREFERRED LIGHT: Partial to full shade
ATTRIBUTES: Long-lasting white, pink, purple, or green flowers in late winter; for beds
SEASON OF INTEREST: Evergreen foliage; flowers in winter and spring
FAVORITES: Christmas rose, Lenten rose, stinking hellebore
QUIRKS: All plant parts are poisonous; mature plants transplant poorly
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Crocus, tulips, grape hyacinth, deciduous trees, red-osier dogwood
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: In the light shade of deciduous trees
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Persistently dry soil can be fatal
RENEWING PLANTS: Colonies live for years; unlikely to need rejuvenation; trim tattered leaves
CRITTER RESISTANCE: Excellent
SOURCE: Bedding plants, seed
DIMENSIONS: 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m) tall and equally wide
Hellebore in the Landscape
Hellebores are tough perennials that bloom in winter, when most of their fellows are dormant. The lovely 5-petaled blossoms poke through patches of melting snow in late winter and can last for 3 months.
Helleborus foetidus has dark, glossy green leaves and pale green bell-shaped flowers that develop a rosy purple rim as they age. It is not fussy about soil, but because its flowers have a rancid scent, plant this species, also called stinking hellebore, where it can be seen but not smelled.
The flowers of two other hellebores resemble single rose blossoms, hence their common names of Christmas rose (H. niger) and Lenten rose (H. orientolis). Christmas rose flowers open creamy white and age to pink.Those of Lenten rose are more variable because the plant easily hybridizes and reseeds. It blooms in shades of rose, pink, lavender, burgundy, and lettuce green, with petals that are often speckled with a darker color.
Because of this varied flower color, plants look best in casual drifts. Let them flow beneath bare winter trees or shrubs, preferably in a place near a path or entryway that's easily seen in winter. You also can mix hellebores into flower beds close to the house or use their evergreen foliage and height in a bulb garden that includes early-blooming crocus and grape hyacinth. Because the blossoms nod downward, growing plants atop walls, on ledges, or in raised beds makes them easier to admire. But keep them away from young children and pets, as all parts of the plants are toxic if eaten.
Laughing at the Cold
Hellebores grow from thick creeping rhizomes, remain evergreen in all but the most brutal winters, and return reliably every year.The 2 ft (0.6 m) high stems are erect and succulent, and the leaves and petals are almost waxy in texture, a quality that protects them from frost damage.
Choose a spot that receives some winter sun and then becomes shady when trees leaf out and temperatures
rise. Dig in compost, leaf mold, or other organic matter before setting out purchased plants in spring or fall, spacing them 12 in (30.5 cm) apart. Each spring thereafter, apply a 2 in (5.1 cm) layer of rotted manure or compost at the base of plants. Hellebores often need at least 2 years to settle in and start blooming prolifically, so be patient. Once established they are quite tough, tolerating drought and even alkaline soil.
Increasing the Bounty
Hellebores are not easily grown from seed, and it takes up to 3 years for a seedling to reach blooming size. If you already have plants, let them shed ripe seeds that will fall to the ground, sprout erratically, and eventually fill in holes in the colony. When small, seedlings can be lifted and replanted where you want them to grow. Once you've planted hellebores, there's no need to disturb them again. Digging them always sets them back, and a full year may pass before the plants regain good blooming energy. However, if
you must move or divide plants, do so in spring, immediately after flowering. These plants are remarkably resistant to pest and disease problems.