When Helleborus orientalis offers up flowers as early as February, it makes the so-called early perennials like pulmonaria and even most spring bulbs seem downright lazy. But the biggest surprise about the Lenten rose, which is not just winter-blooming but also evergreen, widely adaptable to a range of soil types and shade-tolerant, is that it took American nurseries and gardeners so long to catch on to its appeal.
Elfi Rahr of Bellevue, Washington, is an exception. For more than 20 years she has grown hybrids of H. orientalis -- the most accommodating species of the genus -- in her woodland garden, where they bloom in the shade of Douglas firs and rhododendron.
It wasn't mere beauty that drew Rahr to the nodding flowers of H. orientalis, but a matter of survival -- albeit of apiarian life, not human. She wanted to help her husband, an amateur beekeeper, sustain his honeybees in bleak late winter, when they awaken, hungry, to a world without nectar. Hellebores, with their giant nectaries -- glands within the blooms that secrete a sugary substance that the bees feed on while coincidentally pollinating the plants -- seemed an ideal solution. Rahr's mission began with a single plant bearing pure-white flowers.
In perhaps five years, since Orientalis hybrid seedlings take three to five years to attain flowering age in the garden, Rahr had her own small collection of blooming-size hellebores. But as genetics would have it, few of them resembled the original. Because the plants had been allowed to pollinate themselves and one another, the new generation included spotted members and all shades of pink ones, with two- to three-inch blossoms ranging in shape from bowls to stars, some pointed at the tips, others wavy-edged. Today, from that solitary white hellebore, Rahr has one thousand blooming-size plants, each a foot and a half tall and bearing up to 80 flowers.
"In my thousand plants, I hardly have a duplicate," says Rahr, noting color variations from white, cream, and green through pink, lavender, mauve, and wine to the deepest black-purple, many festively marked with dots or shaded margins. "It's like Christmas every time a new group of seedlings reaches flowering size."
Although the Orientalis hybrids are descended from natives of limy conditions in Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus, they nevertheless accept Rahr's acidic soil. The fact that she always works in plenty of humus before planting and mulches with well-aged alder-wood chips probably helps to make them comfortable. (Elsewhere, a shredded-leaf mulch or another kind of wood chip would be suitable.) The hellebores are likewise adapted to a variety of light conditions and soil moistures. They are undemanding, and not just in the England-like Pacific Northwest climate, but in zones as disparate as Vermont, Virginia, and Georgia. In the hottest areas, hellebores demand protection from the summer sun; in New England, an evergreen-bough mulch in the winter might be added. In the Conservatory Garden in New York City's Central Park, for instance, mature colonies of Orientalis hybrids defy the weather for six weeks or more, usually starting in mid-February. If a real cold snap comes once they're in bloom, they usually just flop until it's over, then bounce back up, as they do in drought. "In the winter, it's like resurrection from the dead," says Rahr. "Then during the summer droughts, they lie down like camels."
Not far from Philadelphia, in southeastern Pennsylvania, self-professed "hellebore addict, collector, and breeder" David Culp enjoys his first blooms in February, with the main show staged from late March into April. Culp says the Orientalis hybrids grow for him in exposures extending from nearly full shade to bright sun, and that they ask little: a trowelful of composted cow manure per plant every other year, along with some lime. But even the lime is optional. The so-called Christmas rose (very early, white-flowered H. niger) won't do well without it, but the Orientalis hybrids will.
Though H. orientalis is technically evergreen, with very dark green, leathery leaves, Culp cuts off the tattered foliage in late winter, just before the bloom cycle starts and the foliage begins to emerge. This allows a better view of the flower show. Where the fungus black spot is a problem, removing the old leaves or thinning them as early as late fall also reduces the infected material. It improves air circulation, too, as does proper spacing -- about three feet between plants. Hellebores have been widely enjoyed in English gardens for more than 40 years. Because they were rarely seen in American gardens and garden centers, however, hellebores got a reputation here for being difficult, when they were simply unfamiliar. Today, H. orientalis and H. niger, at the very least, can be found in pots among the shade perennials at better nurseries.
Two other evergreen species, both with striking, very long-lasting chartreuse flowers, are notably easy garden plants. H. foetidus, an English and European native that grows up to four feet high, has finely divided leaves that are reminiscent of a palm frond. Sun-loving H. argutifolius -- from Corsica and often mislabeled H. corsicus -- is rated by many experts as the best hellebore for Southern California and other hot, sunny zones. Its beautiful but sharp-toothed foliage has a light blue-green cast.
In shade, hellebores commingle well with low ground-cover plants such as wood sorrel (Oxalis species), cloverlike plants that Rahr recommends. Other good companions include primulas and pulmonarias, ferns, lamiums, and hepaticas. Early bulbs such as species Narcissus and snowdrops (Galanthus) are equally charming in the picture, says Culp, who grows separate beds of hellebores just for cutting.
Think of it: What other gardener can gather bundles of flowers to take the edge off when winter is still technically in residence? Or if you prefer, float a single hellebore bloom in a glass, the promise of a gardening season about to awaken.