Golden paperbush, winter jasmine, camellias, winter daphne…we have plenty of flowers we love for the garden in winter. But, hands down, our favorite, the one the brings the most joy, is the hellebore. There are so many varieties that it can get confusing. Not only are there multiple species and hybrids available, but even within the most commonly available form, a set of hybrids known as Helleborus x hybridus, there is a myriad of colors and variations.
Before we start rhapsodizing about that, a bit of general information is in order. How often one is taken in by a glorious flower only to find that it’s hellishly difficult to grow or hates our heat in the summer. One of the most appealing things about hellebores is how easy they are to grow and how durable they are in the garden. They are long-lived, drought tolerant, disease and insect resistant, and deer resistant. They soldier through our summers, bloom through frosts and freezes, and are long-blooming. Their charming parade of blooms generally begins late winter and marches on into April. Did we mention that they are evergreen, too? Plant them in shade to part sun, adding some soil conditioner if you have clay soil, and you are good to go.
Types of Hellebores
As aforesaid, there are many hybrids and species available but it all really simplifies down into two main groups. One is Helleborus x hybridus, commonly called the Lenten rose. When not in bloom, they all look pretty much the same: emerald green divided, palmate leaves in clumps about a foot tall and a foot and a half wide.
Painted Double hellebore / Tina Mast
In mid-February, however, the show starts and features a pretty array of plum, pink, apricot, mauve, white, green, pale yellow, or even black blooms. The flowers may be a combination of those colors but also speckled, blotched, or streaked with burgundy. Some are double forms, divinely fluffed out with two or three rows of petals.
Even if you start with just one H. x hybridus, you will eventually have more as they readily produce seedlings and are perfect for creating an evergreen woodland carpet. And, once the bees come in and spread the love, you’ll see all kinds of delightful seedling variations pop up. One of the best ways to enjoy the blooms is to cut them with no stem and float the flowers in a big gorgeous glazed bowl. Oftentimes, camellias and golden paperbush are blooming at the same time and can be added to the hellebores to create sensational floating arrangements.
The second group of hellebores is a set of complex hybrids, such as the Gold Collection, many of which were originally created for the European potted flower market. However, quite a few have turned out to offer great garden performance as well, and they generally divide into two subgroups commonly called Christmas rose and snow rose.
Helleborus from the Gold Collection / Tina Mast
These hellebores tend to be a bit smaller – about 10 inches tall and wide, with foliage that trends dark blue-green or dark gray-green. There is less variation of flower color and none possess burgundy streaks or speckles. Also, whereas the flowers tend to face downward or nod in H. x hybridus types, the flowers in these groups are more up-facing making them easier to see. In the Christmas roses, the flowers are white. In the snow roses, we see mauves tinged with cinnamon, cream flushed with green or mauve, dark plum, pink, off-white, and colors that lie at the nexus between magenta, red, and plum, whatever you call that. While Christmas roses tend to struggle a little in our heat, the snow roses have some Mediterranean heritage that helps them perform better here. Christmas roses bloom a bit earlier – from December to March, while snow roses bloom from late December and into April. A significant and notable difference in all of these hellebores is that they tend to make very few if any seedlings. This can be a plus where one wants things tidy and kept under control.
Whichever group of hellebores you plant in your garden, or both, it’s doubtful you’ll regret it. With such ease of care and abundance of bloom, hellebores are a boon to the landscape and a delight to the heart and the eye. Early foraging bees will be glad you planted them, too.
Featured image – Assorted Helleborus x hybridus floating in a bowl of water / Tina Mast
Tina Mast is communications director for Homewood Nursery in Raleigh and likes hellebores so much she even has a hellebore tattoo. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-847-0117.