Most folks don't typically think of winter as a great garden season...especially if you migrated here from the more northern gardening hinterlands. In Raleigh, however, winter is usually filled with good weather windows that provide opportunities to garden as well as time to enjoy plants in the winter garden. There are few perennials that can rival the winter interest of hellebores...aka Christmas or Lenten rose. Although hellebores are related to clematis instead of roses, these evergreen staples of the winter garden are among the most coveted of garden perennials by those who know them. Sadly, they still remain relatively unknown outside of plant enthusiast circles. Because hellebores don't flower quickly from seed (usually 2-4 years) and often finish flowering before most folks visit garden centers in spring, hellebores are rarely seen at typical plant retailers.
Most hellebores immigrated to America from the Balkans, most notably the region of the former Yugoslavia. I was fortunate to have spent time this past spring hiking through Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, simultaneously dodging goat pies and land mines while studying hellebores in their native haunts. In the wild, we saw hellebores growing both in open alkaline meadows and mature woodlands where, in the latter, they often intermingled with other woodland garden favorites like wild ginger, epimedium, and ferns.
Hellebores have long been grown in gardens, although originally for their medicinal properties. Hellebore leaves are filled with alkaloid toxins and have been used medicinally as both as a poison and a purgative. It is because of their toxicity, however, that hellebores are prized by gardeners as deer resistant plants for those suffering through an excess population of 'wood goats' in their neighborhood.
Most garden hellebores, aka Helleborus x hybridus, are a mongrel mix of hybrids comprised of numerous Balkan species that have been bred together for nearly a century. While one of the earliest-flowering true species, Helleborus niger, starts flowering around Christmas in Raleigh, most Helleborus x hybridus peak for us around mid-to-late February and can last in flower for several months.
Hellebores are renowned for their tolerance of drought and neglect, although they truly thrive when grown in a slightly moist, but well drained soil. They are, however, very sensitive to poor drainage so you can rule out sites that remain soggy or excessively wet. A true testimonial of the durability of hellebores is the longevity of those growing at the old Raleigh garden (Park Avenue) of NC's famed garden writer, the late Elizabeth Lawrence. Her Raleigh home, from which she moved in the 1940s has beds still filled with wonderful clumps of Helleborus x hybridus, despite being home to a fraternity house for decades since!
Because hellebores naturally become root bound in containers, it is important to remove the potting mix and loosen the roots when container grown plants are put in the ground. This will make it much easier to keep your hellebore roots watered and alive until they are well established in the woodland garden. If you want to enjoy your plants in containers for a while before planting, be aware they are heavy consumers of water when actively growing in the fall and spring months, but not when they go into a non active growth state during the heat of summer.
Breeding efforts of the last decade have resulted in incredible advances in flower color as well as flower shape and form. It's not surprising now to see everything from double purples to reds and yellow and pretty much anything in between...a far cry from the often muddy flower colors of the 1980s hellebores. You can remove the developing seed in June to keep your colors pure or allow the plants to seed around and, in a few years, you'll enjoy a rainbow of amazing colors in your winter garden.
Check out our video: Hellebore (Lenten Rose) Production at Plant Delights Nursery