By Dina Lehmann-Kim, Extension Master Gardener
Avid gardeners spend the winter months gazing through plant catalogs, planning for changes and new additions to their gardens while eagerly awaiting the first signs of spring. The hellebore, an evergreen plant that usually reaches 15 inches in height, is one of the few plants that provides comfort to the gardener who is impatient for spring. The hellebore’s blooms can emerge in our area as early as December. And their blooms, as demonstrated by these images taken in April and May, are long-lasting. Technically, the petals of their blooms are not the traditional petal one thinks of when gazing at a rose or poppy. Rather the “petals” are actually bracts, leaf-like structures which support a flower. Bracts are usually green, but can sometimes be brightly colored as with this hellebore in the Shade Garden. (The poinsettia, perhaps a more familiar plant, is another example of a plant with bright-colored bracts).
Hellebores originally came from southern and central Europe. There are 15 species of hellebores with the most common being Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose) and H. niger (Christmas Rose). H. orientalis has been widely used as the source of much of the hybridization that has taken place in recent years. In fact, many specimens are referred to as H. x hybridus or more generally as “Helleborus orientalis hybrids.” The Shade Garden has a small collection of these including H. orientalis ‘Royal Heritage’ which has blooms ranging from white to deep burgundy and the standout, ‘Snow Fever’ with its speckled leaves and white flowers.
The blooms of the H. orientalis grow in clusters of 1-4 blooms supported by thick stems. Hellebores grow best in part to full shade and in areas that offer protection from cold winter winds. Should the leaves suffer winter damage, a good pruning in the spring will revive them. They are slow to establish and rarely need to be divided. They also do well on hillsides or slopes – which is where they are found in the Shade Garden (in section 3E).
In addition to the hellebores, the Shade Garden has an abundance of woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) on display as well as other colorful spring-blooming plants such as the native groundcover, green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), which dots the garden beds with bright yellow flowers. Another native plant, spiderwort (Tradescantia cultivar), sports purple blooms on upright stems surrounded by a mass of gracefully drooping leaves. The Shade Garden has many colorful blooms on display in springtime.
For other examples of spring-flowering plants that can thrive in shady conditions, see this past blog: Shade Garden News
- Hellebores: Harbingers of Spring by Mary Hirshfeld. Originally published in the Ithaca Journal, April 2002
- Hellebore: The Lenten Rose by Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
- Helleborus orientalis Missouri Botanical Garden