Hellebores: Beautiful Flowers All Winter

By Loretta DeMarco

Winter blooming Hellebores are a welcome sight blooming in the winter snows of the Delaware Valley.  Their extensive, woody root systems enable them to thrive and bloom in freezing temperatures.  In my Philadelphia garden the earliest blooming Hellebore (Heleborus foetitus) blooms as early as December and may continue into April. In a cool spring some species will continue blooming into May, by which time they will set seed and stop producing flowers. 
There are about 20 species of Hellebores, however the ones you are most likely to find in area nurseries like Pimex, Holods, and Robertsons, and at the big box stores are H. niger, H. orientalis, and H. x hybridus.  Others will need to be ordered on line or purchased at special nurseries. 
H. niger, commonly called the Christmas Rose, gets its name from its black root.  It has leathery green or blue green leaves, depending on the species, and produces white flowers.  It does not bloom at Christmas in our climate.  It blooms here in late January, Feb depending on the weather.  In this year of no winter to speak of, it started blooming in my garden on January 8 and is still going strong.  It is Evergreen and grows to about 12” tall.
H. Orientalis, or the oriental Hellebore, is commonly called the Lenten Rose.  Like the so-called Christmas Rose, it isn’t likely to bloom for lent in our climate.  Orientalis is a slow growing plant that dislikes being disturbed and is slow to recover when moved.  Its blooms are Pink, Purple, White, or near white.  It will naturalize under the right conditions and the evergreen foliage makes it a good ground cover once established.   It blooms here in March and grows to 16-20” tall.
H. x hybridus.  Hellebores are vigorous cross pollinators.  This vigorous cross pollination produces the hybrids and these hybrids make up the biggest group of hellebores you’re likely to find.  The hybrids are larger more vigorous plants and produce some of the most interesting and beautiful flowers. 
Cultivation Hellebores grow well in almost all types of soil and in almost all types of garden conditions. They perform reliably in zones 4 through 7 and are untouched by rabbits or deer.  Like Hostas, they are commonly sold as shade plants because they will grow and flower in shade.  However they will grow and flower better in a bit of sun. 
They are not fussy except in that they cannot tolerate wet feet – especially not in winter.  They like water but they require good drainage.  They need a bed deep enough for their extensive root run.  And they prefer a soil with high organic content. 
When planting, add compost to the planting hole and backfill with a mixture of ½ removed soil and ½ organic matter.
Mulch with compost in the spring.  Good soil compost is all the fertilizer they’re going to need.  If your soil is not in good condition, fertilize them immediately after the flowering season (May-July) with a good slow release fertilizer.  Then start to mulch with compost every spring.
Allow 12” to 2½ ft between plants.  Some of them, (particularly the hybrids) mature into big plants.  Spacing information should be on the plant tag.
Spring is the season you are most likely to find Hellebores in the stores.  Look for heavenly hellebores - one of the underused garden superstars!