The dreary days of winter can appear gloomier if our landscape looks brown and bare. So, we eagerly await the first signs of spring when birds sing, frogs call, and shoots peek from the ground. While the groundhog is noted for his questionable spring predictions, it is hellebores whose blooms accurately announce that spring is on its way in my garden. To me, their charming, humble flowers represent hope. They open defiantly from midwinter onwards, indicating that the minutes of daylight are creeping in the right direction. In fact, the welcome sight of blooms in late winter and early spring has made it a popular choice for ornamental plantings in many four-season gardens.
Sometimes referred to as Christmas or Lenten rose, this European native, Hellebores spp., is one of the winter garden’s shining stars. Despite the “rose” designation, hellebores are not members of the rose family. Instead, this perennial is in the family Ranunculaceae, which also includes buttercups. There are about 15 species of hellebores and a wide variety of cultivars, as they are easy to hybridize.
They 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 are generally a dusty purple or pale green but can be found in other colors, such as pink, yellow, and blue. Others are embellished with colorful specks on their centers or edges, and if they hybridize, change patterns with each new generation of seedlings. Technically, the flowers are not the traditional petals but are bracts, which can last up to three months in the garden! The poinsettia and dogwood “flowers” are other familiar examples of plants with impressive bracts.
While their flowers are delightful, the hellebore is not a showy plant. Its delicate-looking cup-shaped flowerheads bow, as if shy and unwelcoming of all the attention they are receiving. But these are tough perennial plants, which they need to be to withstand the harsh winter temperatures. Sometimes they may even appear to play dead, collapsing in heavy frost like a tender exotic. However, once the thaw arrives, they recover quickly, regaining their semi-upright posture.
Now, here is where the vocabulary gets interesting. “Caulescent” and “acaulescent” categories of hellebores define the growth structure of the plant. This means some hellebore species are stemmed (caulescent), and some are stemless (acaulescent). The stem-type forms tall clumps with flowers that will bloom once and need to be pruned in late spring. Next year’s blooms will appear on new stems, which will emerge when this year’s blooms are removed. The stemless species form leaves and flowers that sprout directly from the ground.
Hellebores are easy to grow and enjoy dappled shade in the summer and are ideal in a woodland setting. If they get too much summer sun, the leaves will burn, and if the shade is too dense, the plant will not put on a heavy show of flowers. They need little fertilizer; in fact, even a small amount will cause an abundance of leaves with few flowers. As all parts of the plant are toxic, they are deer and pest resistant. Other positives to include them in your garden are that they are incredibly frost-hardy and very drought tolerant once established. Additionally, they are summer dormant, requiring very little attention.
With all of this, who could not be captivated by hellebores? They cast a spell of the promise of spring. Their allure is their noteworthy foliage, charming, delicate blooms, and hardy attributes. Nature created a perfect harbinger of spring to help brighten a dreary gardenscape that will reward you for years to come. For those I have convinced, get out there and plant a few in your garden, and for those who already knew this, enjoy your early blooms!