Hellebore, the Christmas Rose

 The Hellebore is the queen of the winter garden, signaling the coming of spring by blooming long before winter truly ends. They are native all across Europe, but especially in the southeastern part. Hellebores are related to buttercups, not roses, despite their common name. (This is why “plant people” generally dislike common names; they can be misleading.) While several species are used in gardens, I will be dealing with Christmas and Lenten Rose types.

The greatest appeal of Hellebores is that they bloom when almost nothing else is blooming yet, starting in January or February in the Willamette Valley and continuing well into April. The large showy plants bloom in many stalks of flowers which are 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches across, with some of the newer varieties becoming even larger. Even when the actual bloom time is over and the little centers have fallen out of the flowers, the colorful sepals stay on, gradually turning green but remaining attractive.

Hellebores are among the few perennials that keep their foliage all year, clear through the winter months. They will form mounding clumps 12” or more wide.
Being somewhat poisonous, they generally are unattractive to deer. (There are, of course, stupid deer who blunder along eating everything.)
Hellebores are sturdy plants which are easy to grow, and can adapt to quite a wide variety of conditions.
Hellebores are ideal plants for growing under trees and filling in under tall shrubs. The filtered light is just right – not too much sun, not too heavy shade. That said, I have also seen them growing in full, heavy shade against a house, and in full sun, and they looked good in both situations.
Many perennials don’t do well competing for water and nutrients with tree roots, but Hellebores handle it just fine. The roots assure the good drainage which Hellebores need. They will need some watering in our very dry summers, but not nearly as much as some shade plants do. The more sun they receive in the hot time of day, the more water they will need to stay healthy. Their fertilizer needs are also light, just a handful of all-purpose organic feed in spring as the new foliage comes up. Some years I don’t get around to giving them any feed at all and they’ve been fine without it.
The foliage left from the previous year will look tattered and worn-out by spring, and the contrast with the fresh young leaves emerging makes it look even worse. So most people cut off the old leaves as the ones new come out. However, if you don’t mind the way they look, it is not necessary for the health of the plant that they be removed. In late spring or early summer the flower stems also start looking shabby and should be removed, unless you want to leave a few with seed capsules. Hellebores often reseed themselves, though not enough to be a problem, just enough to fill in nicely.
The only insect or disease pest I’ve ever observed in Hellebores is aphids. There is a particular large green aphid that loves Hellebores and always finds them. Don’t worry, just take your garden hose, put your thumb over the end, and spray them off with a hard stream of water. Or you could spray them with a soap-type spray like Safer’s, or a horticultural spray oil to suffocate them. They usually show up just once in late spring, and when disposed of do not reappear.

Long ago in Plant Materials class at OSU I learned the names Helleborus niger, common name Christmas Rose, and Helleborus orientalis, common name Lenten Rose. It’s a whole different world now for that genus. Plant breeders have interbred those species and their many subspecies to create beautiful new varieties. The color range runs from pure white to shades of pink, smoky reds, rich purples and slate gray that is almost black. The colors tend to be muted rather than bright and intense. Some have contrasting speckles in the centers or all across the sepals. Many double-flowered varieties are being developed, particularly by Terra Nova Nursery, our own Oregon-grown plant breeding company. Terra Nova is also successfully developing brighter flower colors in their Winter Jewels series of varieties. From a different breeder, the Gold Collection is a series heading in a different direction. The single flowers are in the muted, subtle colors of the original Hellebores, but the foliage and overall plant appearance is the focus. Their shiny, tidy foliage never looks shabby even when old, and the plants form sturdy clumps that hold their blossoms more upright and easily visible than other Hellebores.

In the garden Hellebores mix well with Hostas, helping to fill the space they leave empty during their winter dormancy, and in summer contrasting with their smooth, rounded foliage. ‘Tete a Tete’ dwarf daffodils and ‘Belarina’ primroses bloom early enough to complement Hellebore flowers and they thrive in the same conditions. Our native Western Sword Fern and Dicentra formosa Bleeding Hearts also mix well with Hellebores. And of course Oregon White Oak and Douglas Fir provide the perfect overstory for them.