Even with red-twigged dogwoods and decorative conifers, winter is kind of a blah time in the garden. Which is why I adore early-blooming plants. There’s nothing like seeing that first pop of floral color after a month or so of drab winter hues.
One of the earliest blooming plants in my garden is hellebore. Each year it races neck and neck with my winter daphne. This year the daphne won, but my hellebores came in a very close second!
Hellebores are also known as Lenten Rose since their strongest bloom period is right around Lent (late winter for those who aren’t up on your Catholic holidays). There are several species of hellebores that make their way into our gardens, but mine are mostly Helleborus niger. These perennials grow best in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8. Although the leaves get a bit ratty, hellebore is typically evergreen through the winter.
Hellebore plants grow to about 1 foot wide and 1 foot tall, but the big leaves can span out over a couple feet. Now, most people grow hellebore for its early flowers, but I love the leaves as well. They’re big, evergreen, palmate, leathery things that almost have a tropical look to them (they’re not, though. They’re actually native to Europe.).
Oh, and the flowers! Who can forget the flowers? In truth, although pretty, they’re not show stoppers. The 2- to 3-inch wide blooms are cup-shaped with five “petals” that makes it look somewhat like a wild rose and colors range from dark purple, to dusky pink, to white. By the way, those petals aren’t really petals, they’re sepals…you have to look very closely to notice the true petals.
Hellebore loves shade…another reason I have so many of these plants in my yard. As with most plants, they prefer rich, well-drained soil (however, I’ve stuck some in clay soil with plenty of success as long as I mulch them well). Once established, hellebores don’t need much water and will tolerate dry soil, so they’re a great choice if you’re trying to conserve water in your garden.
Another reason I love hellebore…they’re bloody simple to care for. Once flower stalks form and the new leaves start popping up in late winter, you can trim away those disheveled older leaves–leave them on during most of the winter since they do actually provide a small amount of insulation to the new growth as it emerges.
If a cold snap hits just as your hellebores start filling in with new growth and flower buds, you can protect them with a layer of mulch or a light blanket. Or, do nothing. These are tough plants and if the cold snap is short and the plants are healthy, they should get by with only minor damage.
If you mulch hellebores with a layer of compost each year, you shouldn’t need to feed them. And, as with other perennials, hellebores will appreciate being divided every three to five years.
Hellebores have little trouble with pests or diseases. Sometimes they get a bit of leaf spot, but this can be controlled by removing the affected leaves ASAP.
According to the ASPCA, hellebore is toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, which stands to reason that it’s also something you should keep out of human mouths as well. After all, the name Hellebore comes from two Greek words that together mean “food injures.” And no one wants to be injured by their food.