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The Lure and Lore of Hellebores
by Charlotte Kidd - posted 01/17/18

 

 

 

 


 

They are mostly problem-free, with delicate-looking flowers that appear early in the spring. They have a long rich history, and deer hate them. What’s not to love about hellebores?


Looking for an evergreen perennial with elegant, richly colorful flowers that thrives in shade and doesn’t tempt deer? The leafy hellebore (Helleborus spp.) is the gardener’s favorite for those qualities and more.

Mostly problem free, hellebores bloom from late winter to early spring across the United States in Zones 5 and 6. Their drooping flowers can be pink, mauve, white, speckled, green, burgundy, yellow, bi-colored, black-purple and more. They last into the summer, becoming greener or darker with maturity

Cut the flowers short to bring indoors and float in a shallow dish or vase. When little else is in bloom, these beauties will delight for many weeks, changing color as they age. The Perennial Plant Association named hellebore “Plant of the Year” for 2005.
 

Helleborus‘ Double White Spotted’

Hellebore History
In Elizabethan lore, hellebores and hollies planted near your door would keep your home free of evil spirits and witches. Is your dog misbehaving or your cat off its food? Hellebores were also thought to prevent evil spirits from bewitching animals, according to Frances Owens, docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library Garden in Washington, DC.

In Elizabethan England (1500s to 1600s), herbs and flowers were thought to have magical powers and medicinal benefits before they had culinary appeal, explains Owens. People used plants as protection from spiritual harm, to help solve day-to-day problems, and for herbal healing.

Beware though. Every part of the hellebore is poisonous. This is why deer don’t browse the leaves. The name tells all. The genus name, Helleborus comes from the Greek “elein,” meaning “to injure” and “bora,” meaning “food” alluding to the plant’s poisonous nature.
 

Hellebores Today
Love knows no danger. For some, the hellebore is as captivating as the orchid. Plantsman and author David Culp vividly remembers being drawn to them some 30 years ago in Georgia and outside his 1910 home in North Carolina.

“This love affair has been going on a long time,” Culp says. “They come in every color except red and blue. I like all the forms—singles, doubles, semi-doubles. Once you fall under their spell, they’re highly addictive. It’s like falling in love—you can’t get enough.

“I do anything I can to encourage people to appreciate the lure and magic of hellebores,” adds Culp. At home in southeastern Pennsylvania, Culp cultivates and breeds new strains of Brandywine Hybrids™—hand-pollinated, self-pollinated, and open-pollinated seedlings—when he’s not speaking, teaching and otherwise promoting his passion.


Developed with loving care by David Culp, Helleborus x hybridus ‘Brandywine’ has strains of many colors.
 

In late February, clip off the dead and damaged leaves to make way for the hellebore’s flowers.


Planting and Feeding Hellebores
Culp and Glick offer these tips from their decades of growing experience.

•  All parts of the hellebore are poisonous, so it is best to wear gloves when handling the plant.
•  When planting or transplanting hellebore seedlings, do not squeeze the plant at the meristem, the growing point at the soil level.
•  Spring and fall are good times to plant hellebores because they push growth in cool weather.
•  Choose a rich, moist garden area, neutral to acidic soil (5.5-7.0 pH) with good drainage in shade, part shade, or some sun. (Wet soil encourages rot.) Dig a planting hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the pot. Crumble half the loose soil back into the hole. Plant the soil from the pot even with soil level around the hole. Just cover the crown with soil. Planting too deeply inhibits flower production.
•  Water deeply, and then water again with a mixture of kelp or a product to reduce transplant shock.
•  Mulch with double ground hardwood bark mulch, leaf mold, or similar organic material.
•  In the next growing season, you have a choice of nutrients. Top dress the soil with well-aged manure and leaf compost. Or apply liquid fertilizer (20-20-20) at one-quarter strength every four to six weeks. That’s one-fourth the recommended amount of fertilizer per gallon of water. When mature, measure on a good quality granular or time-release fertilizer.

Barry Glick, aka Glicksterus maximus aka The Cyber-Plantsman, is so smitten by hellebores he’s devoted more than 6 West Virginia acres to them. He cultivates some 68,000 hellebores on the hills of Sunshine Farm & Gardens in Renick.

Culp and Glick have developed their own beautiful, intricate strains of the popular Lenten hellebore (Helleborus x hybridus). Both have traveled the world seeking to appreciate what’s available, meet and share with those of like minds, and create their visions of the “best.”

Culp’s quest is for the best color and form in his Brandywine Hybrids™. He relies on collected seeds from wild-grown plants in their native habitat. “We offer only the best species for the garden and serious collector,” he explains. “For the past 14 years I have traveled to personally hand select parent plants from the best breeders from around the world.” His hybrids, he says, “add an undeniable grace of form, which is especially useful in natural or woodland gardens.”

Glick boasts hands-on and high-tech for his ‘Sunshine Selections’. His true F1 hybrids start from worldwide collections, go to the lab for tissue culture production, then to his nursery.
 

Left: ‘Spotted Lady’.  Right: ‘Professor Straub’.
 

“The ‘Sunshine Selections’ are the results of years and years of controlled breeding, fanatic attention to detail, insane obsessive compulsiveness and copious record keeping,” Glick details. “Each year I painstakingly hand-pollinate almost 1,000 parent plants that I’ve selected for a multitude of qualities such as depth of color, anemone flowers, double flowers, size of flowers, shape of flowers, vigor, symmetry, lack of symmetry and floriferousness.”

Hellebores are in the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family. Orientalis hybrid, now referred to as Helleborus x hybridus, also known as the Lenten rose, Lenten hellebore or Oriental hellebore is the most popular variety. Its colorful hybrids and cultivars bloom from March into May. Their 1½-inch to 3-inch flowers stand among green, leathery, palmate leaves. Herbaceous clumps from rhizomes range from 12 to 18 inches tall, 18 to 24 inches wide. The large flowers droop at a 45-degree angle—a survival mechanism as protection against weather that can destroy pollen and as a shelter for pollinators.


Pink and mauve Helleborus x hybridus with light green foliage plays well with purple-red Euphorbia on a slope at the Scott Arboretum, Swarthmore, Pa.
 

Other Species

Helleborus niger The Christmas rose or black hellebore. White flowers appear in late winter or early spring; the sepals age to pink. This is the oldest variety.

Helleborus viridis The green hellebore or bear’s foot.

Helleborus argutifolius The Corsican hellebore with pale green, cup-shaped flowers and leathery foliage.

Helleborus foetidus AKA stinking hellebore, has drooping clusters of pale green, bell-shaped flowers and evergreen foliage.

Interestingly, hellebore flowers don’t have petals. Rather each flower has five colorful sepals surrounding bisexual flower parts. Sepals are the plant’s adaptation to attract early season pollinators (like honeybees and wasps) and to protect the plant’s reproductive parts, explains Culp. Unlike petals, these sepals also actively photosynthesize, which is why they stay intact and darken through the season.

Glick adds hellebores are, “wonderful companion plants for snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), primroses (Primula spp.), foamflowers (Tiarella spp.), barrenwort (Epimedium spp.), lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) and… well, just about anything that pleases you.”

  

 

A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2011 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Ron Capek, North Creek Nurseries, and Charlotte Kidd.
  

 


Charlotte Kidd, M. Ed. is a writer, professional gardener, garden designer, garden coach, educator, and Temple University Instructor in southeast Pennsylvania at CharlotteKidd@Charlotte1.us.