Hellebores are pretty, easy to grow, deer- and vole-resistant, will take drought and neglect once established, and are long-lived. It is hard to imagine all these wonderful traits in a single perennial. Hellebores have been around for a long time and recently they have become extremely popular because of the breeding work that has been done to create flowers with exotic colors plus different forms and traits.
There are about 15 different species of hellebores and the three that I will mention are known by several different names. This could be one reason for confusion. Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, is not a rose at all, but a very early blooming form of hellebores. It is said to bloom at Christmas, but I find it blooms early January in my garden. The blooms are most often white but can become pink as the flower ages.
Stinking hellebores, Helleborus foetidus, have an unusual odor when the leaves are crushed, hence the name. The foliage is much more serrated than other varieties. The dark green, deeply cut foliage makes a wonderful show, particularly during the winter months. The pendant flowers are a pale green that can open anywhere from December until spring. It is advised not to plant this variety too close to other varieties if you are looking for your plant to self-seed. If this variety cross-pollinates, the seedlings might not look like the parent plant and the leaves might not be serrated.
Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis, is the most popular and the one that is grown the most. Lenten roses get their common name from the rose-like blooms that flower during the time of Lent, the 40 days before Easter. This plant features large, cup-shaped flowers that come in a broad range of colors. You can find these particular hellebores with flowers of white, pink, rose, rose-purple, almost black-purple, yellow and shades in-between. Plus, they are not limited to solid colors. Hellebores can also have beautiful picotee (dark-edged petals), or spotting or dark centers. The array of coloring seems endless as every year or two another series is developed.
Hellebores are easy to grow and are a wonderful winter-flowering perennial. They like some shade in the summer and are ideal for a woodland garden. If they get too much hot summer sun, the leaves will burn and if the shade is too dense, the plant will not put on as heavy a show of flowers as it would with high shade, shade where the foliage is higher up and some light gets into the area.
When planting hellebores, be sure to amend the soil. This will help the plant develop a good root system. They like a moist soil that is well drained and are quite sensitive to wet feet and will not tolerate a boggy area. You will be rewarded with a plant that can take drought, but it has to be well established first. These plants appreciate a drink of water when the weather is hot and dry in the summer. They are found in nature in limestone soil, but they perform in our acidic soil too.
There are many new hellebores hybrids available today at the local garden centers. Breeders from around the world are working to develop plants with exotic looking flowers and interesting patterns. There are double flower forms that have been developed in recent years and some of the newer ones are quite dramatic when in bloom. Characteristics like flower shapes, unusual color, outward-facing blooms, exotic patterns and strong stems are some of the results they have achieved. It is great to see everything from double purples to reds and even light shades of yellow.
Unless you have sterile hybrids, these plants will self-seed and, over time, you will have a nice collection. Like humans, these seedlings might not be exactly like the parent, but it is amazing how they will self-seed, filling your garden with a sea of color.
Now, I am not one that has a manicured garden, but if you wish to obtain this, you can cut the foliage of the hellebores back in December before the flowers emerge. This will make the flower stand out when in bloom. This is not required, but the foliage will eventually die and new foliage will develop.
Hellebores are typically long-lived plants and do not need to be divided as other perennials require. If you do wish to divide the plants, do so in September or October. Leave at least three buds in each division. This way the plant will have a speedy recovery.
Hellebores have a toxicity that keeps them safe from wandering deer. Living in the country, this is a big help to me since the deer roam freely, wanting to eat some of my other prized plants. Some of the prized hellebores that are available can be expensive, but I can assure you that if you plant them in a site where they are happy, they will outlive you.
Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at email@example.com.