Hellebores: The Perfect Plant

Look outside in your garden and imagine a perfect plant. This plant is evergreen, grows in sun or shade, is drought tolerant, has few insect or disease problems, is not a favorite of deer, and blooms for months at a time.

Photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum

Photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum

Do you think only plastic plants offer these characteristics? Then meet the Helleborus family, Balkan beauties that thrive in local gardens.

Usually considered shade plants, hellebores are actually shade tolerant. In their native habitat, these plants grow at the edges of woodlands and out into grassy meadows. Protecting plants from afternoon sun will help prevent toasted foliage, but otherwise any freely draining site from shady woodlands to open borders will suit. Hellebores come in a range of sizes, flower colors and foliage forms.  Most are easy to grow in average garden soil and some make excellent container plants.

The Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus) is the species most often encountered in the Triangle. Early blooming in mid-February, they are available in a wide range of colors, from pure white to deep purple. A mature plant forms a mound of dark green foliage with branching stems bearing 100’s of flowers a foot or more above the leaves. Naturally nodding, hellebore breeders have selected plants with more outward facing flowers in both single and double flowered forms.

Photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum
Photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum

Most Lenten Roses are seed grown and variable, but recent laboratory breakthroughs produce plants from minute bits of tissue. This production method results in 100’s of identical plants. ‘Winter Dreams Elegance White’ is one of these new forms, a double white with raspberry spots.

The Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) can be a bit more difficult to grow, but is usually happy in woodland soil that drains freely. The large white flowers are often in bloom for the holidays and with 12-14” tall stems make good cut flowers. A smaller plant than the Lenten Rose and slower to mature, the Christmas Rose will eventually form a 24”mound.

Recently, interspecies hybrids have become available. These are hybrids between Helleborus niger and other species. Most of these offspring are sterile, producing no seed, but many flowers.

Photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum

Photo courtesy JC Raulston Arboretum

Interspecies hybrids are shallow rooted and grow happily in containers.  Three, Helleborus x ericsmithii, Helleborus x nigercors and Helleborus x ballardiae are good plants in our area. Usually these plants are offered with cultivar names, ‘Ivory Prince’, ‘Winter Moonlight’ and ’White Beauty’ and are widely accessible at local garden centers.

Imagine beauty in your garden today; imagine a garden of hellebores.

Judith Knott Tyler and husband Dick Tyler, along with C. Coleston Burrell wrote Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide, a 2007 National Book Award winner by the American Horticultural Society. They own Pine Knot Farms, located one hour north of the Triangle near Henderson, NC. You may contact them at (434) 252-1990, or

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