Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hellebore Basics



I hoped to include a few images of my own Hellebore flowers in this post, but sadly they're buried under six or eight inches of snow. Snow in December is seasonal and cheery. Snow in April is just plain depressing! More rain and snow is forecast for the coming days, so it looks like warm spring weather is still at least a week away.

Hellebores are relatively new to my garden. I just have a few; a couple of plants friends have kindly given me and a few I have purchased myself. 

Plants may come recommended to you, but you can never fully appreciate what they can do for your garden until you grow them yourself. Before the weather took a turn for the colder, I took a stroll through the garden looking for signs of spring. I paused to appreciate the delicate white snowdrops and the first crocus. Then I came across the maroon Hellebore that Joy, a blogging friend, had sent me last spring. The small flowers I had just admired paled a little in comparison with the cluster of these larger flowers. 


Several factors have limited my collection of Hellebores up to this point in time. First and foremost they tend to be a bit pricy. It is hard to find a Hellebore for under twenty dollars. 

The selection available at local nurseries also seems to be very limited. I have never seen any of the nice doubles at my favourite nursery and the only colors they seem to carry are a dirty-pink and a greenish-cream. I have to wonder if the selection is this grim because consumers tend to purchase plants that are in bloom and Hellebores flower long before most gardeners think about spring purchases. To find the really nice Hellebores it seems that you have to resort to mail order companies.

Why go out of your way to track down and purchase pricy Hellebores? 

• When it comes to early blooms, they really have no rival. And Hellebores bloom for an extended time from late winter into spring. 

• Once established, care is fairly minimal. 

• Their foliage is both attractive and deer resistant.

Hellebore from the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Some Common Types of Hellebores:

• Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose is possibly the earliest Hellebores to flower. 

• Hybrid Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis offers the widest selection of colors and is the most common kind of Hellebore sold.

• Helleborus fortidus has segmented or serrated foliage and prefers a bit more sun than other types of Hellebores. This is a short-lived perennial that will likely to leave seedlings behind.


Hellebore from the Toronto Botanical Garden.

How to plant a Hellebore:

Hellebores are often billed as shade plants, but they actually prefer part-shade. These are plants that herald from the mountainous regions of Central Europe, where the can be found growing on the outer fringes of woodlands. Mimic their natural habitat by planting them on the edge of tree canopies, where they will get sun in spring, and dappled shade in summer when the leaves have filled out. 

Plants in nursery pots can be planted in spring or fall. These are long-lived plants, so add some compost to the soil before you backfill the planting hole. 

• Hellebores prefer soil that is evenly moist. Top dressing with some mulch can help to conserve moisture. 

It is not petals but sepals that make up a Hellebore flower. 

Hellebore from the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Hellebore flowers either nod or face outward.

Ongoing Care:

Orientalis or x hybrid types of Hellebores require a late winter/early spring cleanup.  As the snow melts fresh blooms begin to emerge at the centre of a ring of tough, leathery old foliage. Removing these leaves allows the flowers to shine. Fresh new foliage will soon appear. (Exceptions to the rule: Helleborus niger does not like to have its foliage removed. Cut off dead or damaged foliage only as needed. Cut back Hellebore foetidus and H. argutifolius only after new growth breaks at the base of the plant.)

• Hellebores grow actively in the spring and fall. In summer, they stop growing while they wait for the temperatures to become cooler. Fertilize in late fall so the plants are well supplied with nutrients when they break dormancy in late winter/early spring.

• Unlike many perennials, Hybrid Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis don't die back at the centre of the plant requiring division. These are long-lived plants that don't need a gardener's intervention. But if you want to divide a Hellebore, fall is the best time to do it.

• There are a few fungal diseases that can effect Hellebores. Often these problems occur with plants that are planted in overly shady, moist soil. Moving the plant may help. It is also a good idea to remove any infected leaves. 

Hellebore from the Toronto Botanical Garden.

To Purchase Hellebores by Mail Order:

Frazer Thimble Farms is a Canadian mail order company that specializes Hellebores and other rare plants. They are now taking orders for fall shipping.





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33 comments:

  1. Hi Jennifer, your comment about not finding a selection at the local nursery can be made for almost any plant you are looking to buy. When I look at nurseries in the US or the UK the selection always looks fabulous. I can't help but wonder if the small selection Canadians are offered is due to our smaller populations. I know that I am certainly buying more online than I used to, and that sure puts a dent in the pocketbook when you look at the shipping charges. Yikes.

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    1. I haven't noticed that the selection being as limited as it is for Hellebores in particular, but you are probably right, Patty. Just this afternoon I was admiring the selection of Snowdrops and Snowflakes available through Carolyn's Shade Gardens and wished I could have the opportunity to order some of them. I'd love to know the reasons behind the lack of availability here in Canada. Is it, as you suggest, our smaller population or do we buy less plants per capita? Even mail order companies are few and far between here! And you're certainly right, having to pay shipping charges does impact the pocketbook big time!

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  2. Your post is lovely and informative. On a sad note Judith Knott Tyler of Pine Knot Farms passed away recently, very suddenly and will be missed by all for her talent and passion for hellebores. Again, thank you.

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    1. That is sad news. She certainly will be missed.

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  3. Sadly, mine are completely buried now too.
    We had more snow over the past couple of days, than we had all winter.
    I did get one photo of them a couple of weekends ago when the first flower appeared, but I am not so sure how they will fare. I think they'd be okay with the snow, but we are in for sub-zero temps for a couple of days, so I am concerned.

    I can come here, and see these beautiful photographs, and hope though. :-)

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    1. The snow is melting here and my hellebores flowers look to be coming through the cold snap. The tiny blue iris blooms however are looking pretty sad... Like me, I am sure you'll be glad for some warmer weather Lisa.

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  4. From an Australian point of view Hellebores are very resilient We have a two in a neglected part of the garden and they have survived heatwaves and freezing temperatures...and I'm feeling terrible guilty about them as I write. I'm off to water them now!

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    1. I didn't know that gardeners grown Hellebores in Australia. I would have thought they would mind the heat. So interesting!

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  5. I hadn't realised how lucky we are in being able to buy so many lovely hellebores here in the UK. Hopefully more plant breeders in Canada will produce more varieties for you soon.

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  6. Enjoyed reading your post.It was interesting to know many things about hellebores. How to plant, how to take care, how to buy etc.. They look beautiful...

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  7. Hellebores are expensive because it takes three to five years for them to bloom and only 10% bloom in year three. Most plants bloom in a pot within six months. I am not sure why your local nurseries would not stock decent colors. You should encourage them to.

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    1. Thanks for adding this in Carolyn. I have read that Hellebores take a long time to get ready for market. It would be interesting to know why the selection is so limited here. I must ask.

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  8. I just bought my first hellebores at Canada Blooms this year! They're sitting patiently on a bench by the window, waiting for the snow to go and the soil to warm up enough. I've been hardening them off gradually when the temps are over about 5C as I know they were raised in a greenhouse in order to get them to bloom. I can't wait till next winter/spring when they bloom outside.
    This article really helped me understand the plant a lot better.

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    1. I am glad that you found it helpful Heather. I learned a lot doing the research. When is winter going to end I want to know? It is snowing here yet again! I am sure you must have snow too.

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  9. I purchased a trio of double hellebores that are absolutely stunning. I called a local nursery that sells them a month ago and the owner opened up his greenhouse for me and it was completely filled with blooming hellebores. It was a spectacular. They are expensive but I really do wish I had bought a few more. We all could use more winter flowering plants in our gardens.

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    1. A greenhouse full of blooming plants! It does sound spectacular Stacy.

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  10. Lovely hellebore, Jennifer. I guess why it has flowers down or maybe is any variety with flowers up? Unfortunately hellebore isn't too hardy for my zone 5a, I tried to grow one plant but it didn't wintered.

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    1. There are outward facing flowers which is almost as good as upward. Sorry Nadezda, I neglected to check out the issue of hardiness for this post. I'd suggest you give Hellebores one more go. I found a gardeners forum where several people comment on hardiness for an inquiry from a zone 4 gardener's . Here is a link: http://forums.gardenweb.com/discussions/1928614/hellebores-for-zone-4

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  11. Ahhh, Jennifer! This is the most information I've seen on Hellebores. I wasn't sure about ordering them - at those prices, I didn't want a shriveled up little stub that wouldn't grow, and my good independent nurseries only have the boring ones you mentioned. I knew there were pretty ones out there, if I could only find them. You answered my questions about sun/shade and removing leaves, etc. Thank you for another very informative post.

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  12. My hellebores have been blooming for more than a month now. There aren't many spring flowers that can boast that sort of longevity.

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    1. How I wish our weather was as warm as yours has been on the west coast Pondside! I envy the fact that your Hellebores have been flowering for a month already!

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  13. One of our nurseries had a few at the beginning of March and now they are long gone. Too bad. But I've only seen the two common varieties you mentioned. They are lovely plants and I have a cooler somewhat shadier patch so they might like it there. Your weather is just awful- I have family back east and they are not too happy about it. I'm not allowed to talk about it!!

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    1. What Hellebores there are do seem to sell quickly, don't they? Yes, the weather has been very depressing. I like to get gardening early when it is cool, not hot and there are no bugs. Now the warm weather of May will come as a shock.

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  14. I also have some new hellebore which looked very promising last week but are now completely buried under snow. We will hope it soon melts.

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  15. I've always liked Hellebores ...
    Your weather is unusual I think? Reading around the blogs I visit snow does seem to be occurring when it really shouldn't be - goodness it is almost mid April. Still there is not much we can do about it.

    Stay safe and warm

    All the best Jan

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    1. Yes, the weather has been unseasonably cold, Jan. Apparently we are in the grips of some Polar vortex!

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  16. I absolutely love helleborus and I can’t get enough of them! I don’t know how many I have, have lost count but probably around 25 flowering size and about 30 young ones that will flower eventually. I buy all my helleborus as young plants by mail order, they are really cheap – but you have to wait a couple of years before they flower. I also save seedlings and spread seeds so I get new hellebores where I want them – in 5 years’ time or so. I have Helleborus hybridus and Helleborus niger – a staple in an English garden. I brought with me all the hellebores I could find from my previous garden and only Helleborus ericsmithii didn’t appreciate being dug up and put in a pot :-)

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    1. You have an incredible collection of Hellebores Helene, which I have often admired in your posts. I sure the Helleborus ericsmithii will recover with the excellent care you give your plants.

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  17. A favorite spring flower....and mine seem to thrive in the spring sun which amazes me....we had the same snow but my March warm weather coaxed most of mine to bloom early.

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  18. H. orientalis (and its hybrids) is one of my favorite perennials, and the fact that you and I can both easily grow them in our disparate climates speaks to their toughness.

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    1. It does say something that Hellebores can be grown in such differing gardens!

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  19. Hi Jennifer,
    I'm from South East Asia, and it's quite humid and hot here, up to 39 clecius in summer.
    Could you please let me know if hellebore can thrive in my climate, or does it bloom in summer?

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    1. Hellebores bloom in the early spring. It does not get up to quite 39 degrees here (maybe 32 degrees), so the heat wouldn't be my main concern. Hellebores are actually native to western Asia and China as well as various parts of Europe. You'd have to do some research, but you may be able to grow the species plant that is native to western Asia or China.

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