On quick trips through my snowy winter garden over the last few weeks, I’ve been greeted by plump pink flower buds. Not barely-pink-if-I-squint-my-eyes flower buds, but thick, fleshy, mauve buds, promises of greater things yet to come.
These buds are on the downward arching stems of my ‘Red Lady’ hybrid hellebore. The buds are almost certain to open in the early weeks of March. More mauve than red, the ‘Red Lady’ buds are a sight for winter-weary eyes.
Like other members of the buttercup family, hellebores have showy sepals but reduced petals. Sepals are the protective flower bud coverings, which are green on most plants. Because hellebore sepals retain their colors for weeks on end, sometimes remaining showy for several months, these perennials provide a long-lasting floral effect in the shady perennial garden.
Over time, hellebores will form impressive masses in the garden, making them an excellent ground cover for partially shaded sites. When their flowers come into bloom from December through May, it’s easy to see why hellebores have been loved by gardeners for centuries.
The true petals of a hellebore flower are reduced into tubular nectaries, formed in a ring around the flower’s sexual structures, the stamens and pistils. These nectaries hold a sugary reward for visiting pollinators. The female portion of the flower matures first, followed by the surrounding male stamens, which then shrivel and fall from the flower after their pollen is shed.
Thanks to modern breeding and marketing, the hybrid Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) is widely available, and makes a lovely addition to any shade garden. In 2005, the Perennial Plant Association named the hybrid Lenten rose perennial plant of the year; the resulting breeding and sale of the plant has made it easy to find and much more affordable.
The related Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) can bloom from early winter to early spring. The white flowers of Christmas rose sometimes bloom in November, but they typically flower from late winter through spring. This hellebore goes by an assortment of traditional names tied to its bloom time, including Holy Night rose, rose of Noel, and the Christmas bloom.
Legends have long been associated with Christmas rose. According to one tale, a poor young shepherdess, Madelon, followed other shepherds to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus. Madelon shed tears because she had no gift for Jesus, the angel Gabriel then appeared and touched his staff to the cold ground where the tears had fallen. Roses sprang from the ground, which the shepherdess gathered and laid in the manger.
Several centuries-old folk carols use the Christmas rose as a symbol for the Christ child, including a German carol from the 1800s titled Winterblumlein or The Little Flower of Winter. Long before its Christian association, however, this plant was known for its toxic and medicinal uses from at least the time of Hippocrates. In the Middle Ages, Helleborus niger was grown in monastery gardens for its medicinal uses. The plant was also associated with witchcraft. Apparently it was favored for witches’ charms because one “finger” of the lobed leaf was evil, and only a witch knows which one.
Another species, the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), is named for the skunk-like odor emitted from the leaves. Anyone who has transported this plant in the back seat will attest that the leaves do not have to be rubbed or crushed to produce the smell. Thankfully, the odor isn’t noticeable in the garden. The leaves are very attractive with their deeply cut, narrow leaflets held on 2-foot tall stems. Showy clusters of green, bell-shaped flowers are produced on stinking hellebore from winter through spring.
Hellebores are long lasting in the garden and easy to care for. They are often described as needing dense shade, but hellebores can perform well in partial sun if the site has rich, well-drained soils high in organic matter. As a rule, hellebores resent being moved, and so should be sited where they can stay put.
While plants are evergreen in warmer zones, our hellebores usually need to have winter-damaged leaves trimmed back in spring to remove brown tissue. If soil conditions are right, seeds will sprout around mother plants; dig the seedlings and move them to new locations, where they will usually flower in three years.
Hellebores are an excellent plant choice for gardens with moderate to severe deer pressure, although keep in mind that a very hungry deer will eat just about anything. The toxic (and odiferous) properties of hellebores make them a last choice for browsing deer.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.