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Winter Jewels™ Hellebores
by Caleb Melchior - February 2013

Gardeners are a curmudgeonly lot. Most of us are constantly looking back over our shoulders. We revile the breeders who have bred the scent out of roses, the flavor out of vegetables, and the delicacy out of roadside weeds like the oxeye daisy. But, with some genuses, we have to stay silent and admit that the breeders have done admirable work.

Until recently, the majority of Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) available on the market were fairly dismal. In contrast to the brightness of their early spring companions — the clear violet of crocus, the plastic gold of winter aconites — most had flowers the muddy pink of sunset in a beginner’s watercolor painting. If you were lucky, they might have an interesting dot pattern or a graceful shape. 


New Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) foliage emerges from the ground, squeaky green and flushed with coral or plum.

 

Some uppity gardeners, through their under-table dealings at plant sales, occasionally came into possession of one of the rare yellows, or, wonder-of-wonders, double-flowered plants. There were, of course, the clear-colored species — the frigid petals of Helleborus niger warmed by their yellow nectaries, or the sharp green bells of Helleborus foetidus with their strange purple and gold interior markings. But the majority of Lenten roses found in gardens were sullen, grown more for their tolerance of miserable conditions than any great aesthetic merit.

Today, things have changed. Following extensive selection by breeders and enthusiasts in the United States and Europe, the modern Lenten rose offers a range of color to rival even the most pampered genuses of show flowers. You listening, rose fanatics and bearded iris fanciers?

Amongst the boggling assortment of Lenten rose strains to be found in gardens today, none are finer or more widely available than the Winter Jewels™ bred by Eugene and Marietta O’Byrne of Northwest Garden Nurseries in Eugene, Oregon. Winter Jewels™ is an umbrella brand for all hellebore seed strains released from Northwest Garden Nurseries. It currently encompasses 21 different strains, nine with single-petaled flowers and 12 doubles.

The singles have strong, clear colors and good vigor. Single-flowered strains include ‘Amethyst Glow’, ‘Apricot Blush’, ‘Black Diamond’, ‘Cherry Blossom’, ‘Golden Sunrise’, ‘Jade Star’, ‘Painted’, ‘Ruby Wine’, and ‘White Pearl’. In my garden, ‘Apricot Blush’ opens its green-tinted orange flowers underneath a canopy of deep pumpkin ‘Diane’ witch hazel blooms (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane').  In the year, ‘Goldcrest’ digitalis picks up the same tones with its soft apricot bells.

I also grow ‘Cherry Blossom’ and ‘Golden Sunrise’. ‘Cherry Blossom’ is an exquisite picotee flower, with deep rose staining around the edges of a pure white flower. ‘Golden Sunrise’ bears yellow-green flowers in the spring, but its finely cut foliage looks fantastic all year long.

While the single varieties have strong color, the doubles are the most exciting of the Winter Jewels™. These are some of the most reliably stable of double hellebore seed strains, with remarkable vigor. As a further benefit, they are widely available through a variety of sources.

Double varieties include ‘Amber Gem’, ‘Amethyst Gem’, ‘Berry Swirl’, ‘Cotton Candy’, ‘Double Painted’, ‘Golden Lotus’, ‘Jade Tiger’, ‘Peppermint Ice’, ‘Onyx Odyssey’, ‘Rose Quartz’, ‘Red Sapphire’, and ‘Sparkling Diamond’. They are slower to flower than the singles, often requiring a growing season or two after planting before producing flowers.

‘Golden Lotus’ is one of the first reliably double yellow strains of Lenten rose to be widely distributed throughout the United States.

When I first saw ‘Golden Lotus’ growing on the nursery benches, the foliage impressed me even more than the flowers. Like ‘Golden Sunrise’, its palmate leaves are finely cut, contrasting with the coarse leaves of other Lenten roses. Its double flowers are smaller than some of the other strains, in shades of greenish yellow.

‘Onyx Odyssey’ has full, deep purple flowers. Similarly to other very dark hellebores, it tends to be a slower-growing, smaller plant than lighter-flowered varieties. The flowers are large, with cream anthers huddled in their dark centers.


The flowers of ‘Peppermint Ice’ can be fully double or anemone-centered, like this seedling here with its curious pattern of grainy pink.
 

‘Painted Doubles’ have large, full-petaled flowers with mauve dots at the flower center.
 

In addition to the more unusually colored double strains, the various pink and purple strains have grown and flowered well in my garden. ‘Berry Swirl’ and ‘Cotton Candy’ have large flowers, lusciously stained with pink. ‘Double Painted’ has fine double white flowers with heavy plum freckling at the center. ‘Peppermint Ice’ has an almost grainy pattern, like rose ink on rough paper, but its petals are large and completely smooth. The fantastic thing about these double strains is that the exterior of their petals is often marked and colored, as well as the interior, giving them a strong presence in the garden.

The Winter Jewels™ share common needs with other Lenten roses. Like peonies and baptisia, they are long-term plants that resent disturbance to their roots once established. It pays to prepare the ground for them carefully. The Winter Jewels™, in particular, appreciate a moist but well-drained site with abundant organic material.

More Lenten roses are killed through over-attention than any other cause. Excess water is particularly deadly. They are cool-weather plants, producing most of their growth in fall and winter. During the summer, they simply maintain themselves.

This growth cycle makes them frustrating for gardeners with spring fever. Plant a hellebore in March. It may flower a bit (probably not, especially if you’re stingy like me and buy the smaller bargain plants), then just sit there. Maybe it will produce a new leaf or two over the course of the summer.

Don’t get concerned and start dousing it with too much water or fertilizer. It’s resting. Come fall, it will start to grow a little. But nothing much will happen until it sends forth new growth in the spring.

And then, oh what a happening! The stems will rise with their unfolding leaves wrapped around the pale new buds. As the days warm, the flowers unfurl, revealing their fantastic interiors, plum and gold and mottled pink.

So the next time you’re at the nursery, turn away from the scentless roses and flavorless vegetables. Go over to the hellebore table and fill your trolley with ‘Cherry Blossom’, ‘Golden Lotus’, ‘Onyx Odyssey’, and the rest. Next spring, when the flowers open, you will understand why these hellebores are truly Winter Jewels™.

Photos courtesy of Caleb Melchior.

 


After years of gardening along the Mississippi River in Southern Missouri, Caleb Melchior is now studying for a master’s degree in landscape architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

 

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