Below is an article I wrote for Oklahoma Gardener in May, 2010, about hellebores. I thought you might enjoy it. The photos are from 2010 through 2012. At this moment, my hellebores are patiently waiting under comfy leaf piles for me to tend them. I simply haven’t had time. I’ve also written about hellebores here before. I think hellebores are heavenly even if you have to flip yourself upside down sometimes to see them.
About the time when Oklahoma gardeners can no longer tolerate winter, hellebores begin to bloom. Starting in late January with Helleborus niger, nothing is more soothing to a winter weary heart than these hardy perennials. Blooming for two months or more if nights are cool, hellebores show themselves early, and then remain a constant presence in the shade garden throughout the year.
The genus Helleborus covers a group of perennial plants from Europe and Asia with the majority found in the former Yugoslav republic. Although hellebores are sometimes called Christmas or Lenten roses, they are part of the family Ranunculaceae, known as the “buttercup family” or “crowfoot family.”
Gaze closely at the ethereal blooms, and you’ll notice that the parts of the hellebore which look like flowers are actually five, petal-like sepals. A ring of up to thirty-two insignificant petals is held underneath.
The botanical taxonomy of hellebores can be daunting, partly because it seems in a constant state of change. However, most of the hellebores sold in local nurseries are hybrids derived from H. orientalis, the Lenten rose. Hybridizers have worked tirelessly to create new cultivars with double blooms and better and clearer colors, and even upward-facing blooms. Many hybrids are now replicated via tissue culture to keep them stable because hellebores naturally love to intermingle and create new varieties.
Other hellebores commonly found in nurseries are H. argutifolius, the Corsican hellebore, H. niger, the Christmas rose, and H. foetidus, the stinking hellebore. The seed strain, H. foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’, and its progeny are becoming more popular due to their red-tinted stems.
H. niger seems to like well-drained, alkaline soil. Although the soil in Oklahoma is more alkaline, an annual dressing with ground limestone may increase vigor and flowering. For our hot, humid summers try selections from the ‘Wilder’ or ‘Nell Lewis’ strains.
In Oklahoma, most hellebores are evergreen, but by late winter, it is a good idea to remove old foliage for a better view of the emerging stalks. Freeze and thaw cycles don’t tend to damage plants. Buds typically emerge from the soil sometime between January and March, though they may be earlier or later depending on the hybrid and weather.
Finally, one of the best things about hellebores is that, due to their toxicity, they are deer and insect resistant.
Common Name: Christmas and Lenten roses
Botanical Name: Helleborus spp., Helleborus hyb.
Color: Range from green to red, white with spots, yellow and even a dark purple/black.
Blooming Period: H. niger can bloom in January, with other varieties blooming from February through May
Size: Depends on species types.
Exposure: Shade to partial shade
When to Plant: Container specimens can be planted throughout the year.
How to Plant: Remove the plant from container and spread roots lightly. Dig hole so that the top of the root ball is at soil level. Plant and cover with a small amount of soil
Soil: Loose, well-drained soil with amendments like leaf mold to increase flowering.
In Your Landscape: Plant with early flowing bulbs like snowdrops and crocus. Hellebores look especially nice under spring flowering trees.
Sources: Sooner Plant Farm, http://www.soonerplantfarm.com, lists several hybrids online.
Locally: TLC Nursery has several selections, and Bob Scott Nursery has a nice selection too.
Big Dipper Farm, located in Oregon is another online source
Sunshine Farm and Gardens is at the forefront of hellebore hybridization.