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Hellebores

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Gems of the winter garden
February is the shortest month (I’ve decided) because if it lasted a single day longer I’d go nuts. Dreary, dark, cold and damp—28 (or 29 in a bad year) days is enough to depress even those of us who proudly call ourselves Northwest natives.

Instead of turning to drink, I’ve turned to gardening. February flowers are a tonic to my mood. My ‘February Gold’ daffodils bloom true to their name, the winter daphne (Daphne meze-reum) perfumes the air with masses of tiny mauve blossoms, and that queen of winter flowers, the hellebore, holds court.

Once you discover hellebores, you want more. You want them all. Fortunately, many species are becoming easier to find, and some nurseries now carry hellebores in four-inch pots, which may be a year or two from blooming size but are considerably cheaper than what you’d pay for a good-sized plant in bloom.

The first hellebores I was introduced to were the orientalis hybrids. These have deep green, slightly jagged, palmate leaves which form attractive, nearly-evergreen clumps. In our climate they are subject to botrytis—you’ll notice black spots forming on the leaves around December of January. This is the time to cut the leaves off at ground level, to prevent infection of the flowers.

Some cultivars flower earlier than others: ‘Early Purple’ is in flower by December. My orientalis hybrids hold off until January. Then the buds, which have been tight little mounds hud-dled close to earth, rise on fleshy stalks and the single, five-petaled flowers open. They  hang their heads, so you need to get personal with them to fully admire their beauty.
In color, they range from purest white to pink to slaty blue-black. Hybridizers are especially keen on yellow and nearly-black flowers, or double flowers like the ‘Party Dress Hybrids’ which sport as many as 15 petals. There are also hybrids like ‘Medallion’, with purple spots on a white background.

In a heavy frost, the flower stems flatten to the ground. Don’t be alarmed! They almost always spring back up. These are tough plants.
I don’t let my hellebores go to seed, because I’ve already got a surfeit of seedlings, but if you do you’ll find plenty of babies next spring to transplant or give away. Beware letting the children grow too close to the mother plant; they may swamp it, and as the children seldom look like mom, after a few years you may end up with a different flower in that spot. Be aware that when you buy a named plant, it’s only true to name if it was propagated by division, not seed. If you’re after a particular color effect, it’s safest to buy your plant in flower. Although I’ve never met a hellebore I didn’t like!

The “Christmas Rose”, H. niger, is an earlier flowerer with glossy leaves and (in a good form) large white flowers, sometimes flushed pink. This one is a little more difficult to grow well than the orientalis hybrids, demanding a richer soil and more water in summer. I’ve never actually had Christmas flowers from this beauty, but it does open a few weeks earlier than H. orientalis. A lot depends on your microclimate: I know of hellebores in gardens only a few miles away from mine that are in bloom weeks ahead of my plants.

The hellebore that often is in flower by Christmas is H. foetidus (foetid, of course, means stinking, although I’ve never noticed an odor). This species has attractive, long-fingered leaves, sometimes deep green, sometimes sheened with a hint of silver. Almost shrubby the leaves and flowers share a stalk, so you don’t want to cut this one back until it’s time to deadhead. The buds hang their heads and gradually open into bells of pale green, in some forms rimmed with red or with a reddish tint to the stems. I think this is the easiest species to grow; seedlings may flower in their second year.
Creamier, larger flowers are found on the Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius. The three-fingered leaves of this plant are coarser, with sharp toothed edges, and a mottled-silver color. This is a shrubby variety, up to three or four feet high, a little taller than H. foetidus. Alas, I haven’t found it to be as free with seedlings. Perhaps I need to collect the seeds and start them in pots, rather than letting nature take control.

If you do sow your own seed, sow it soon after you’ve collected it, or if you order seed by mail, sow it as soon as you receive it — it isn’t viable long. A “must-have” book for anyone who wants to get this involved with hellebores is The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangmen.

Nature and the hand of the propagator have produced some fabulous hybrids between different hellebore species. One of my favorites is H. x sternii, a cross between H. argutifolius and another species, H. lividus. Even if my x sternii never flowered, I would grow it for its foliage. It is much like that of the Corsican hellebore, but more heavily veined with silver. The flowers are cups of creamy-green flushed pinkish-purple. H. x sternii does set seed, and like other species, as the flowers age and are pollinated, they open wider to expose puffed-up seedpods.

Similar, but with even nicer leaves and flower, is the sternii-niger cross which goes under the names H. x nigristern or H. x sricsmithii. I’ve read that these crosses can vary, looking more like one or the other parent. Mine shows traits of both parents. Like H. niger, the plant sends up both leaves and flowerstalks from the ground. Like H. x sternii, it also sends up stalks shared by both leaves and flowers. The pink-tinged, greenish-white flowers are more like H. x sternii. Because this cross is sterile, the flowers last for months and new buds are sent up for a long time. This is a hard-to-find beauty, and I’m not sure I should even talk about it, because you may decide you want it and not be able to find it. However, it’s only in the past couple years that treasures like H. x sternii have become available in nurseries, so I’m hopeful that you’ll soon see this one, at least on a mail-order list.

Words are poor substitutes for the real thing, I know. There are a couple places you can view hellebores before deciding what you want. The Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum (a short walk from the Graham Visitor’s Center at 2300 Arboretum Dr. E. in Seattle) has three varieties: H. orientalis, H. foetidus and H. argutifolius. The Northwest Perennial Alliance’s border at the Bellevue Botanical Garden (12001 Main St. in Bellevue) has those three, plus H. x sternii. You’ll also find some really nice orientalis hybrids there, a few with almost black flowers. And don’t you need an excuse to get outside and enjoy a crisp, February day?

You CAN have flowers in your garden from December through February!
NWGN archive published February 1997

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