What better plant to give some love to in February than the winter- and early-spring blooming perennial hellebore? And love they got at a recent Winter Workshop from perennials manager Lisa Winters and her Severna Park audience. Here are some highlights.
History, with Legends
Knowing that hellebores are native to the rocky upper slopes of European mountains, especially in Greece and the Balkans, teaches us that they're happy with very little watering and are unhappy in constantly-wet spots.
All sorts of fun legends have sprung up over the centuries about hellebores. Like that they cure insanity and ward off evil spirits.
And while hellebores are poisonous, that's only if ingested in quantity. So they're no great threat to humans but that poisonous quality does ward off deer, rabbits and squirrels. Now don't you love their lethality?
Qualities in the Garden
Besides being critter-proof, most hellebores have the excellent qualities of being evergreens and of blooming when not much else blooms - sometime between December and the end of March. They're also virtually pest- and disease-free and super-drought-tolerant, once they're established in the garden. Plus, they're long-lived and thanks to their generous self-seeding, will fill out a whole border if their babies aren't removed. No wonder they were named a Perennial of the Year - in 2005 - and that they've become soooo popular. About time.
Where to plant them? Dappled shade is best, but even full shade will do. Afternoon sun here in the Mid-Atlantic is not a good idea, though. The only other caveat is about that all that self-seeding - if you don't want it, that means having to do some weeding (weeds being defined as any plant you don't want). And if you want to keep the seedlings, it'll take 3-4 years for them to bloom. Similarly, full-grown hellebores don't appreciate of being moved and may respond by refusing to bloom the next year. (I can relate - nobody likes to move!)
Care and Feeding (Not!)
Hellebores require so little maintenance, there's not much to say on this subject, except that most gardeners remove old hellebore foliage in the late fall before the flowers appear. It's not absolutely necessary, but the dying leaves aren't things of beauty and once they're removed, the gorgeous flowers stand out even more. No fertilizing is necessary or recommended.
Types to Choose From
The earliest hellebores to bloom are the H. niger or Christmas rose, which doesn't actually bloom for Christmas but in January and February. Their white flowers gradually become pink and then red.
The famous "stinking hellebore" or H. foetidis doesn't actually smell up your garden, unless you crush its leaves.
The Corsian hellebore is very distinct, with its serrated leaves. Unlike its cousins in the genus, it blooms quickly from seed.
According to Lisa, it turns out that most hellebores on the market now are actually hybrids of these various types. Trying new hellebores is so easy - because of all that seeding they do - that breeders are coming up with excellent new varieties every single year - especially since this tough-as-nails perennial has finally come to be appreciated.
Buying them Now?
One audience member asked how to care for hellebores she might buy now and Lisa suggested asking if it's been greenhouse-grown or not. If it has, keep it indoors until March and then harden it off gradually outdoors because it's not used to cold temperatures. Hellebores displayed outdoors at the Homestead locations have been growing outdoors and are fine to put in the ground as soon as you get them home.