Growing Concerns: Hellebores are hot

As anyone who attended the recent Northwest Flower and Garden Show knows, temperatures may be chilly, but hellebores are hot. The horticulture industry has declared this winter-blooming beauty “Perennial of the Year,” and it’s been celebrated and photographed from every angle for gardening publications worldwide.

The recent introduction of double flowers no doubt has much to do with the plant’s recent surge in popularity. But the hellebore has been gracing gardens since the time of the ancient Greeks. Then it was grown more for its medicinal properties than looks. It was also respected as a poison.

In nature, hellebores thrive in the alkaline meadowlands of Europe and Asia Minor. Another species was collected in China. They adapt very well to a wide variety of climates and conditions, including our acidic Northwest soil. Hellebores enjoy full sun, but cheerfully adjust to gray skies and shady gardens, as long as they aren’t waterlogged in poorly draining soil.

It would be difficult to find a more versatile perennial than the hellebore. Not only does it flower in the depths of winter, but can be used in sunny mixed borders, dapple-shaded woodland gardens and as foundation plantings. It has attractive foliage, which in some species, is evergreen. The average mature hellebore plant is about two-by-two feet wide and high. Hellebore’s toxicity makes it a good choice for gardens where deer are a problem; they instinctively leave it alone.

Hellebores have several common names. You may have heard them called Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) or Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) because of their bloom times. Then there’s the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), which doesn’t really stink unless you rub its leaves.

The stinking hellebore is an excellent choice for Northwest gardens, since its dark green leaves on 18- to 24-inch stems are evergreen, and are a superb background plant for gold or light green hostas, purple-leaved heucheras and finely-textured ferns and corydalis. They maintain their good looks through multiple freeze-and-thaw cycles, and come January, sprout stalks that produce long-lasting, pale green flowers.

The popular H. foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’ has showy red stems and blue-green leaves. It usually produces red-tinged, drooping blooms earlier than other strains, and has a preference for sunshine. It has a relatively short lifetime, usually four to eight years. Like most hellebores, however, it produces many seedlings that will keep the flowers coming.

If you collect seeds from your hellebores, don’t allow them to dry. Sow them as soon as they’re ripe. If planted outdoors, they’ll sprout in late winter. If sown in pots, they should remain outside through Christmas, as they need a cold period to sprout. After the holidays they may be brought inside, where they’ll sprout soon after.

The old-fashioned Christmas rose, H. niger, sports smooth, dark-green leaves and produces white, bell-shaped blossoms supposedly in December, but don’t hold your breath. Depending on growing conditions, it could bloom any time from November through April. Lenten rose, H. orientalis, (or simply Helliborus x hybridus) has been hybridized for vigor and color ranging from purple to yellow. There are now double, picotee (two-tone) and speckled strains from which to choose, as well as open, up-facing flowers instead of the natural bell-shaped form.

Hellebores are seldom bothered by insects or disease, but slugs are another story. Sprinkle some iron phosphate-based slug bait around the plants, and slugs will take a hike. Black spot can become a problem if the garden isn’t kept tidy. Don’t let leaves rest on the ground. Pick off any that do, and clean up debris around each plant. A nice organic mulch will help keep black spot spores from splashing up onto the leaves during rainy periods.

March is a good time to feed plants with a balanced, organic fertilizer. I like to supplement this with an occasional treat of crushed alfalfa pellets. This seems to keep the hellebores — and everything else — happy and healthy. Just remember not to overwater.

If you’d like further information on hellebores, an excellent resource is “The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores” by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Stragmann (Timber Press). Heronswood Nursery’s Web site,, has well-written information and gorgeous photos of its selection of hellebores. You have to type the word in as “helleborus” on the search option. Another good Web site is And of course, check local nurseries to see the hellebore of your dreams up close, in living color.

Island County Master Gardener Mariana Graham invites your input at

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