Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Hellebores Happen

Day 254
The Daily DuBrule

A week ago my Hellebores were trying to flower. It had been a warm December and a few types were cruising along nicely, budding up, and starting to swell. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is so named because in England and other warmer climates it is usually in bloom on Christmas day. I have seen that happen twice in CT, and I thought this year was going to be the third time. The buds on this species emerge from the center of the crown, right at ground level. If you check your Helleborus niger plants in late November, you will usually spot them, as in the photo above. 

Helleborus niger in bloom with snowdrops
The week of Christmas, it started to get really cold. I decided I would rather wait to see the flowers than to find them frozen in the morning so I created a loose tent of cut evergreen boughs and covered my plants. Now, almost a foot of snow has fallen and I imagine these buds are safely waiting under their blanket for warmer days to come. If the snow cover lasts, we may not see our Christmas roses bloom until late February. 


Hellborus foetidus is called bear's paw hellbore because of the distinctive pattern of its leaves. Another common name is "stinking hellebore" because if you smell the leaves or the flowers, they have a pungent aroma. This species buds up completely differently than Helleborus niger. The buds form on upright stalks; they are formed in late summer and are held above the totally evergreen foliage as fall winds down. They open in early winter, often blooming through the top of the snow, even if the leaves are buried. The flowers on this species are chartreuse green with burgundy edges. It is not the showiest flower by any means, but its early, and an oddity. I actually grow this plant primarily for the leaves. I have had bear's paw Hellebores in my dry shade garden for over 20 years. I have found that the best way to assure their longevity is to let the flowers from the previous winter remain on the plant and go to seed. Then, once you have spotted dozens of baby seedlings in the garden, cut the seed stalk to the ground. Usually, at that point, the mother plant dies, but there are so many babies everywhere that you will never be without this plant. Sounds like a familiar life cycle? Actually, now that I think about it, I treat my Helleborus foetidus as biennials. It works for me. 

Helleborus orientalis and all of its many relatives they we now call Helleborus x hybridus (the breeding work lately has created a very mixed up Hellebore world) set up their buds in a very similar manner to Helleborus niger but they tend to wait a while to form. When they do, usually in late winter, they arise upward from the crown of the plant on long stems. 
Although their leathery leaves are quite green and attractive when they head into the winter, by March when they begin flowering, the leaves have usually become brown and unsightly. The photo above illustrates deadleafing, removal of last year's leaves as this year's flowers are forming. If you can get to this chore before the flower stems get too tall, it goes a lot quicker. 
Helleborus x 'Candy Love' buds erupting from the center of the plant in late March.
No matter what kind of Hellebores you grow or hope to grow, they do provide a fascinating study in the colder months when the rest of your beloved perennials are dormant. Each year brings a different set of weather conditions. As gardeners, we should monitor how the buds are forming, protect them if it is extremely cold and there is no snow cover, and enjoy the promise of spring that the sight of their buds gives us each time we venture outdoors to say hello.

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