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Here in the Pacific Northwest the blooming of hellebores is a favorite late winter reminder that spring is right around the corner. The genus of Helleborus is comprised of 15 different species and belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). Hellebores are perennial and largely evergreen. Their flowers provide color and interest in the shade garden when other plants are dormant. In addition, their leaf structure is interesting enough to make them a foundation of the shade garden year-round, even when their flowers are spent. Hellebores are also deer resistant and somewhat drought tolerant.
Hellebores are usually low growing plants with short-stemmed, often toothed, palmate foliage. Their most impressive feature is their five-petal bowl-shaped flowers which appear from late winter into spring in colors as diverse as apricot, yellow, green, metallic blue, slate, dusky pink, maroon and white. In addition, petals may be spotted or picoteed, referring to the narrow band of darker color found on the edge of the petals. Some varieties feature double-petalled flowers, giving them a nostalgic rose-like quality.
Some of our favorite species of hellebores are described in greater detail below.
Known as the Corsican hellebore, this species is evergreen and hardy to Zone 6 with good protection. This species has light green leaves with many light green colored flowers displayed on stalks. Leaves are divided into three leaflets that are toothed in texture with spiny margins. This is an attractive low maintenance species that provides lots of winter interest. Noteworthy varieties include ‘Silver Lace’ which is a new variety with silver foliage and creamy flowers.
Known as the Stinking Hellebore, this species is evergreen and known to be pungent if crushed. Originating from Britain to Hungary, this species has dark green leaves with 5 to 13 narrow leaflets. Flowers are light green to red-tinted and erect with conspicuous leafy bracts. This species is very hardy and a good garden plant once established. Varieties carried by Portland Nursery include ‘Wester Flisk,’ 'Aromatique,’ ‘Giant Form,’ ‘Gold Bullion’ and ‘Red Silver.’
Known as the Christmas Rose, the Helleborus niger is winter to spring flowering, evergreen and native to the Alps of northern Italy to southern Germany. Leaves of this species are dark green, leathery and divided into 7 to 9 leaflets. Flowers have pinkish buds opening to white with a green center. This species is hardy to Zone 3 with protection. Varieties carried by Portland Nursery include 'Josef Lemper', 'Honeyhill Joy' and 'Praecox.'
Known commonly as the Lenten rose, this species is a semi-evergreen winter-flowering species from northern Turkey and Greece. Leaves are coarsely serrated and flowers are variable from pure white to red-black, often with spotting. This species is commonly hybridized with other species to form Helleborus x hybridus which results in varieties as diverse in color as apricot, blue, black and maroon red. Portland Nursery carries a changing variety of many types listed below.
Helleborus x hybridus - Largely a hybrid of Helleborus orientalis and another species such as H. cyclophyllus, H. odorus, H. purpurascens or H. viridis. Most varieties are variable and represent selected seedling material with an eye towards different flower colors. Typical flower colors include white, pink, rose, reddish-purple, deep purple and even black. These hybrids are very popular and include cultivars such as 'Gepunktete' (pictured in sidebar) which is intensely spotted and series such as Mardi Gras (black, green, slate, white and yellow flowers) and(apricot, double pink, double white, double purple, green, pink and yellow flowers -- single purple pictured) which each have a range of colors.
Another popular hybrid is Hellebore ‘Ivory Prince.’ Officially known as Hellebore ‘Walhelivor PPAF,’ this hellebore is a hybrid of two other hybrids, ‘x nigercors’ and ‘x ericsmithii.’ Noteworthy are its upright blooming cream and pink colored flowers, as well as its light-green serrated leaves with red stems. “Royal Heritage” is a strain that is known for its wide diversity of colors and patterns on large two-inch wide pendulous flowers.
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Common Name: Hellebore, Lenten Rose, Christmas Rose
Origin: Temperate zones from Europe to Western China; many grow in the Balkan region of Southeastern Europe.
Culture: Most prefer woodland conditions with deep, fertile, humus-rich, well-drained soil and dappled shade. Hellebores can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions as long as plants have good drainage.
Maintenance: Easy to grow in the shade garden. They are an excellent companion for hostas, woodland flowers, ferns and other shade-loving plants.
Many hellebores are evergreen but benefit from having old foliage removed before they bloom in late winter to early spring. In the shadiest conditions plants may be smaller and flowering may be sparse. In addition, they don’t like to be divided or transplanted.
Pest and Disease: Hellebores have few problems with disease but they are susceptible to black fungal rot. Keep an eye out for aphids. Slugs and snails also are known to attack young growth.