Ask the Master Gardeners
Q: I have been advised to plant hellebores to thwart the local deer population. Is this sound advice?
A: Yes. Hellebores are not only deer resistant but also add winter interest to the garden. We would suggest looking at the many new hybrids with â€œflowersâ€ in lovely colors. Please note that not all hellebores have downward-nodding blooms.
The multiple varieties have long-blooming flowers. They are evergreen and the multiple shapes of leaves exhibit a lovely appearance all year. For more information, refer to â€œHellebores: A Comprehensive Guideâ€ by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler (Timber Press, 2006).
â€” Krys Mernyk, Sleepy Hollow, master gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester
More on hellebores
Here’s an article about hellebores that I wrote for one of our Home and Design magazines a couple of years ago:
With their bold, nodding flowers shaped like buttercups, early-blooming hellebores are the perfect antidote to the moody, melancholy days of late winter, when the snow and slush just won’t seem to go away and crocuses and daffodils are just beginning to climb out of the ground.
A decade ago, hellebores were considered rare collectors’ plants, unknown to most of the gardening public except perhaps in England. But propagation methods have improved in recent years, and there’s been new interest from more and more gardeners.
Winning the coveted Plant of the Year designation last year from the Perennial Plant Association has also helped push hellebores into the hands of a gardening public hungry for hardy, deer-resistant plants that bloom when little else does.
“I love them,” says Jeanne Wilcox, a landscape designer who lives in White Plains. “When I worked at Nabel’s two years ago, I sold them to everyone.”
“You can come out in March, in the snow, and they’re in bloom,” she says.
Hellebores come in a wide variety of species and named and unnamed cultivars, but the best known and easiest to grow are the Oriental hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus) commonly known as the Lenten rose. In warmer climates like North and South Carolina, they do bloom during Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Sarah Matlock of Ossining says that she has early-blooming varieties of hellebores that bloom as early as February. “Of course, it depends on what kind of winter we’re having,” she says.
Hellebores are also extremely long-blooming perennials. Even in June, hellebores still in full flower can be found in garden writer and educator Lee Reich’s robust garden in upstate New Paltz. Reich, who grew up in Scarsdale and Yonkers, calls hellebores, along with hardy cyclamens, the “plants of the future.”
“They’re such great plants,” he says. “They bloom for so long and they look good even when they’re not in bloom.”
Growing hellebores requires a bit of patience, though. Like peonies, seedlings grow slowly, often taking three years to come into bloom. But the plants form dense clumps that eventually reach 2 to 3 feet wide and 2 feet high.
Once in bloom, the plants are irresistible. Colors range from speckled creams to rich chocolate purples and include many yellows, pinks, greens and reds. Many of the flowers have a heavy combination of spots and freckles and appear almost two-toned.
Hellebores like a spot in the garden with dappled shade, good drainage and rich, loamy soil, but they will tolerate a fair amount of clay (good news for Rocklanders).
Also like peonies, they have deep, temperamental roots and resent being transplanted or moved, so try to pick a good spot where they’ll be happy for a long time.
They do particularly well under old deciduous trees, which provide full sun in winter and spring and a broad protective canopy of leaves in summer.
The flowers face downward so a hillside site that allows you to look up at the flowers would work well. This would also give them the good drainage they crave.
“You have to bend over to see the flowers, which I kind of like,” Wilcox says. “And the flower stays on forever.”
They work particularly well as cut flowers, she says.
Matlock, who gardens with mostly full sun in her Ossining back yard, keeps her hellebores in a shady spot, combining them with early-blooming bulbs such as snowdrops.
“They look pretty nice underneath a witch hazel I have because it starts pretty early, too,” she says.
Other early-spring bloomers that look good with hellebores include epimediums, anemones, trilliums and primroses. Plants with contrasting foliage, such as ferns, hostas, heucheras and variegated lamiums, also make great combinations.
The dark green leaves are thick and glossy, standing up to snow and wind for much of the winter. Hellebores are not officially evergreens, but the leaves stay green most of the year, only turning brown and tattered in late winter as the snows begin to melt and blooms begin to form.
Simply snip off the tattered foliage around the new buds and new growth will quickly appear.
The leaves of the plant contain poisonous alkaloids that may bother gardeners with sensitive skin (just wear garden gloves), but those same alkaloids and other poisons make the plant extremely distasteful to deer, voles and other pests. Aphids, though, can sometimes be a problem.
Hellebores can be found in nurseries throughout the spring, summer and fall. Prices are rather high, especially for the named varieties, but many hellebores throw off lots of seeds and self-sow generously.
Trade your seedlings with friends and neighbors to bring new varieties into your garden. Once you try this wondrous perennial, you’ll probably be hooked. Some say it’s the first sign of becoming a serious gardener.