Have you discovered hellebores yet? They bloom ridiculously early — as in right now. The deer walk right past them. And you can grow them in nearly total shade.
In mild winters, hellebores will bloom in February or even January. Many varieties will keep blooming for months, sometimes well into June. All in all, these easy-care, low-maintenance perennials are just about the perfect plant for spring gardens in the Hudson Valley.
The genus Helleborus includes a wide variety of named and unnamed cultivars. The most common, and the easiest to find in local nurseries, is H. Orientalis, which is commonly known as the Lenten rose because of when it blooms.
(TJN file photos)
Growing hellebores requires a bit of patience. 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 prefer 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). They are very cold hardy. 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. In most varieties of hellebores, the flowers face downward so a hillside site that allows you to look up at the flowers also works well.
Other early-spring bloomers that look good with hellebores include witch hazels, 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 snow begins 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 gloves), but those same alkaloids and other poisons make the plant extremely distasteful to deer, voles and other pests.
Hellebores can be found in nurseries in 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. Then you’ll have plenty to share with friends and fellow gardeners.