Winter puts the bloom on Lenten roses
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
The fascination started with just one look. Janice Nicolson spotted a plant blooming by a landscape client’s front porch, in shade, in the dead of winter. “What is this plant?” she asked pointing to the flower she had never seen before. Her client didn’t know the name, so Nicholson began a quest to find out. After seeing it several times in old gardens and asking other gardeners, she discovered the plant was a Lenten rose. But her quest didn’t end there. After unsuccessfully trying to locate a local buying source, she started producing them herself. Hellebores take two to four years to mature from seed, so many nurseries don’t want to invest the time it takes to grow them. “But, I didn’t know any better,” Nicholson laughs. “So, I started growing them.” That’s how hellebore fever often begins.
Lenten rose, Helleborus ˣxhybridus (formerly known as H. orientalis), is the most commonly grown hellebore in American gardens. And it is no wonder as they are tough garden plants and the easiest of the hellebores for us to grow. “They’re pretty much foolproof,” says Nicholson, owner of Gethsemane Gardens and Nursery in Greensboro. “You can plant them and forget them.” Add to that their captivating beauty and unique bloom time, and you understand why gardening legend Christopher Lloyd proclaimed, “Hellebores are an addiction.”
Hellebores are members of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, and are native to Europe and Asia. Lenten rose gets its name from its propensity to bloom before, during and after the forty days of the Christian observance of Lent. They can bloom as early as January and last through May. The showy blossoms are comprised of five petal-like sepals, with the actual ring of modified petals tucked inside the bloom. These tiny, funnel-shaped petals, appropriately named nectaries, are a source of nectar for bees and other early pollinators. The large glossy evergreen leaves are spectacular in the landscape, often measuring over a foot across.
These cold-weather perennial luminaries come in an array of colors, shapes, forms and sizes. Colors include pink, lavender, white, yellow, green, reddish, purple, creamy white, near black and slate blue. Some are freckled, dark-centered or veined. Picotee styles have an elegant maroon stain tracing the rim of each bloom. Shapes and habit vary widely: star, cup, outward-facing, nodding, single and double hellebores. The varietal possibilities are infinite!
Winter is often thought of as a time of bare branches and few blooms, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Hellebores work together with many other woodlanders like crocus, epimedium, Iris reticulata and snowdrops to light up the bleak midwinter landscape. H. ˣhybridus thrives in well-drained soils and are remarkably drought tolerant. They need protection from the intense Southern summer sun, but like more light in the winter. “Don’t plant in solid shade,” advises Nicholson. “The plant will probably live, but won’t produce as many blooms.”
Although hellebores are happy to grow without human intervention, there are a few maintenance tips that help plants look and perform their best in the garden.
Removing seeds After the blooms fade, the papery seedpods, which are surprisingly beautiful, ripen and a multitude of glossy black seeds spill out. If you garden on a large piece of land, you might want to let them spread with abandon — and don’t worry — they will. But as wonderful as new seedlings are, too much of a good thing can be too much, especially in smaller gardens among other plants. You can remove the seedpods before they burst. Sharing seedlings with friends is another option. Remember though, seedlings do not come true from seeds, so may not be the same color as the parent plant. The best time to transplant and plant is fall, although most nurseries sell more hellebores when the plants are in glorious bloom in late winter or early spring. Another option for the small garden is sterile hybrids that don’t set seed. Some of the most sought-after hellebores in the world right now are sterile hybrids.
Removing old leaves Although hellebore leaves last throughout the year, they begin to look ragged in January at about the same time flower buds begin to appear. The leaves can be cut off at this time. This is mostly done for aesthetic reasons, but it makes a notable difference as bloom stalks show up much better without leaves. Nicholson prefers to leave some of the newer foliage to accompany the bloom, and cuts only tired-looking, ragged leaves.
Fertilizing It’s not necessary to fertilize these robust plants in the garden. Some gardeners like Nicholson allow leaves that fall in autumn to mulch and fertilize hellebores naturally. She doesn’t add extra leaves to the beds because she doesn’t want to inhibit seedling growth. “The good Lord knows better than I do how much mulch they need,” she says. If the leaves start to turn yellow and plants are not performing well, she recommends topdressing around the plants with bagged, composted cow manure. If the soil is too acidic, you can also sprinkle some ground, dolomitic limestone around plants.
Oh Rabbit! Oh Vole! Oh Deer!
Plants go in and out of favor in the gardening world. But, hellebores have managed to stay popular for a long time. Nicholson believes their deer resistance has a lot to do with that. With ongoing loss of habitat, deer and other wildlife are more prevalent in neighborhoods, and gardeners are looking for plants that will not get nibbled. All parts of the hellebore plant are poisonous, so deer, rabbit and voles leave them alone. Helleborus comes from Greek helein meaning “to injure” and bora meaning “food,” literally food that kills.
A Few Good Hellebores
“Anyone can grow Lenten roses,” wrote Elizabeth Lawrence. So here are a few more hellebores for adventurous gardeners to try. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) blooms earlier, hence the name. The vigorous “Nell Lewis” strain from the garden of the renowned late Greensboro plantswoman Nell Lewis thrives in Southern gardens. Other hellebores that grow successfully in the Triad include H. argutifolius, H. dumetorum, H. foetidus, H. odorus, H. ˣsternii, and H. torquatus.
The reasons to grow these delightful plants are many. To borrow a popular sports slogan: Just Do It! You won’t be sorry. Your winter garden will be more colorful, inviting, and warm-feeling. We could all do with a little more hellebore fever. h
In addition to a variety of hellebores, Gethsemane Gardens also specializes in hard-to-find perennials, shrubs and seeds. The nursery, located off N.C. Hwy. 150 in Greensboro, is open by appointment only. Phone number: (336) 656-3096. Nicholson sells plants at the Downtown Greensboro Farmers Market Saturday mornings from mid-February to mid-June and October to November.
Hellebores are also on display and for sale at:
Pine Knot Farms, Clarksville, Virginia. www.pineknotfarms.com
Plant Delights Nursery, Raleigh, N.C. www.plantdelights.com
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a writer, gardener, reader, and hiker. She blogs at Giving Voice to My (www.cherylcapaldotraylor.com).