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Hellebores- Harbingers of Spring

Hellebores: Harbingers of Spring
Originally published in the Ithaca Journal, April 2002
By Mary Hirshfeld

Hellebores orientalis DLC Hybrids
By late March most gardeners find themselves impatiently prodding their frost-encrusted soil for signs of vegetative life, anxiously eyeing that spot where new daffodils were planted last fall. For those of us who eagerly look for signs that winter is finally coming to a close, hellebores are a wonderful garden barometer. Most species are evergreen and in milder climates provide abundant clumps of leathery dark green foliage throughout the short winter days. But here, the foliage usually suffers from the wear and tear of winter combined with periodic encasings of ice. By March it looks sufficiently bedraggled that it detracts from the fresh flower display, and is better cut back to the ground. A new flush of leaves will emerge as the flowers are finishing up, and they will flaunt their texturally bold character throughout the summer.

Hellebores are native throughout wide swaths of Europe, ranging from the British Isles to Greece, Turkey and Syria, with the majority inhabiting a diverse range of habitats in the several countries that now comprise the former Yugoslavia, with one lone species found in China. Ten years ago, hellebores were primarily plants for the serious collector but intensive hybridization efforts in Britain, New Zealand, and more recently, the United States have developed a wide array of easily grown garden plants characterized by stunning flowers and foliage. The lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) has provided the foundation for breeding work on interrelated groups of complex hybrids now referred to as H. xhybridus but still known more familiarly as Helleborus orientalis hybrids.

Helleborus foetidus pontarlier
Typically the Lenten rose is a sturdy, long-live perennial reaching about 15 inches in height (several inches taller when in flower), with foliage that forms dense clumps of pedately divided foliage--meaning the leaves are divided like the fingers of a palm--and these are once again themselves divided. The divided leathery foliage is lovely throughout the summer, remaining a rich dark green that is rarely marred by insects or disease. Flowers appear in profusion from mid-March through April, often earlier in a warm winter. They are cup-shaped, rounded, and slightly nodding, usually white with green or rose overtones decorated with red or purple spots on the interior. Helleborus orientalis inhabits open grassy or scrubby sites from northwestern Turkey to the central Caucasus Mountains but in the garden will thrive in a rich limey soil.

Hybridizers have been working to enlarge flower size, develop more horizontal flower carriage, diversify the color range, intensify the degree of color saturation, increase the amount of interior petal spotting and concentrate it towards the center of the flower, and even to create semi-double and double flowers. Well over 100 named selections have been introduced, but most of these gems still command impressive prices that will keep them out of the reach of average gardeners for some time. However, much more affordable seedling strains are available that provide plants with superior vigor in a range of flower colors. The two most widely available strains are the D.L.C. Hybrids developed by David Culp while he worked with Sunny Border Nurseries, and the Royal Heritage Strain developed by John Elsley while working with Wayside Gardens. We have both growing at Plantations and there doesn't seem to be much difference between the two strains. In both, plants have proven very vigorous. They establish quickly, and produce single flowers in a range of pink, purple, and maroon shades, as well as cream and white, most with varying degrees of interior spotting.

More recently, seedling strains selected by the renowned Hellebore collector and breeder Will McLewin in the United Kingdom have become available in the U.S. Named the Phedar Select Strain after his nursery, these emphasize very dark, almost black-purple flowers, and lighter colors with distinctive, very decorative interior spotting. A lovely group of named hybrids was developed by British horticulturist Helen Ballard that includes near yellow flowers, semi-doubles, and picotee flowers, which have a darker petal margin, often of a contrasting color. A seedling strain, the Ballard Hybrids, is now available which, although still quite costly, provides a grab bag of colors and patterns. And from New Zealand plant breeder Terry Hatch comes the Winter Joy Strain with improved plant vigor, clear colors, and heavily spotted petals.

Although they are great all-season perennials, don't limit your horizons to the H. orientalis hybrids. The stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), so named because of its unattractively scented flowers, and foliage that emits an unpleasant odor when bruised or broken, is the first hellebore to bloom each spring at Plantations. A statuesque plant of ample proportions, it can reach two feet in height, and can sprawl to an equal or greater width. It's ebony-green foliage is more finely divided than that of H. orientalis, producing a lacy textured mound that retains its green color throughout the winter. As the leaves rise up the stem, they become reduced in size and lighter in color, clothing the upper half of the stems in celery-green bracts that are almost as showy as the terminal clusters of small light green, nodding flowers that appear in late February and early March. Widely distributed throughout Europe, this plant is surprisingly winter hardy, provided it is placed in a very well drained site. It does well in partial shade, although self-sown seedlings have emerged and thrived in very sunny, south-facing dry sites at Plantations. Because this species is so widely distributed, individual variation in plant form and habit is frequent, providing opportunities for observant horticulturists to find distinctive forms of horticultural value. Three that we have growing at Plantations are 'Green Giant', a remarkably robust form; 'Sopron', a form with very dark lustrous leaves found near Sopron in north-western Hungary; and 'Wester Flisk' with its red-tinted stems and leaf petioles.

My personal favorite never flowers in our frigid climate but it is a remarkable foliage plant. Helleborus argutifolius, from the warm sunny climes of Corsica and Sardinia, is a massive three-foot-tall plant that carries substantial terminal heads of green flowers in warmer climates. Here, the evergreen stems are killed to the ground each winter, re-emerging in spring to develop into 18-inch-tall mounds of compound, leathery leaves, each leaflet elegantly edged with slender spines. Like the stinking hellebore, this plant demands excellent drainage if it is to survive the winter months. Although slow to establish, once H. argutifolius settles in, it pushes through the ground in early spring with remarkable strength, quickly forming an imposing clump of exotic foliage that commands attention throughout the entire growing season and well into early winter. It can be grown in full sun or partial shade, although plants grown in shade will develop more slowly and be less dense in habit. There are two striking variegated forms. 'Janet Starnes', and 'Pacific Frost' with their heavily dotted leaves marbled with cream and an occasional flash of pink, have both been very slow to establish at Plantations and need to be coddled along each year. If they ever reach mature size, they will definitely be gorgeous specimen plants.

Lastly, the green hellebore (Helleborus viridis), although not as spectacular as the former varieties, is a demure and lovely addition to a shaded spot. It also differs from the other hellebores described in that it has deciduous foliage, so although it may not have a winter garden presence, neither does it have tattered foliage that needs to be removed each spring. Native to the British Isles, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy, this species prefers shaded woodland sites; in the garden it is best sited in a cool shaded location in rich limey soil. In April, delicately fingered compound leaflets compliment nodding rich green flowers. The finely textured foliage retains its verdant character throughout the summer provided plants are provided with shade and not permitted to dry out. Hellebores are very tough, long-lived plants that are a strong presence in the garden and ask very little from their caretakers to thrive and persist. Come seek them out in the Groundcover Collection and other gardens at Plantations and enjoy their diverse leaf forms and unusual flowers.