April 2, 2009 in Washington Voices

Hellebores among earliest spring blooms

Pat Munts
 
Pat Munt Special to The S-R photo

White hellebore flowers are starting to bloom alongside yellow aconites in Steve and Joan Hoitink’s garden. Special to The S-R
(Full-size photo)

After a long winter, any sign of spring is a welcome reminder that we are nearly done with the cold and snow.

For Steve and Joan Hoitink, spring comes within a couple of weeks of the last of the snow disappearing from their South Hill garden when their hellebores begin blooming beside the snow drops.

Most of us are familiar with snow drops but many gardens aren’t as familiar with hellebores as a star of the early spring garden. Snow drops disappear quickly. Hellebores, on the other hand, bloom and hold those flowers for up to two months. They are the perfect bridge to the later blooming bulbs and perennials.

Hellebores are commonly know as Christmas (Helleborus niger) and Lenten (H. orientalis) roses because of their early blooming characteristics. In milder climates they often bloom around Christmas into the beginning of the Lenten season, hence their names.

Here in the colder Inland Northwest climate they usually bloom in late March. In the Hoitink’s garden last week, white Lenten roses were almost open, surrounded by yellow aconites and white snowdrops.

Hellebores bloom in dusty shades of purple, pink, rose and white. Many age to a green over their two-month life. The flowers are nestled in clumps of low growing, dark evergreen leaves that can grow to a foot tall and two to three feet across with age.

While being an early bloomer is reason enough to plant them, hellebores are an underutilized garden perennial that fits in many tough garden spots. It grows well in almost any well-drained soil and is fairly drought tolerant once established. Its clumps make it a perfect ground cover for shady borders or under trees and shrubs.

The plant has few disease or bug problems beyond some leaf spot and slug attacks. Maintenance involves trimming off ratty leaves in the early spring and maybe a light feeding of organic fertilizer or compost. They are reasonably deer resistant, unless you have a herd living in your yard. Their one bad habit is they can be a bit hard to establish and don’t like to be moved.

Hellebores often give the gardener another gift besides year-round beauty. They cross easily with other hellebores and reseed generously. Because they easily cross, the seedlings aren’t likely to bloom in exactly the same colors as their parents. As a result many plants in the nurseries will be listed as hellebore hybrids in a range of colors.

If having a particular color is important, the only way to buy a plant with a guaranteed flower color is to buy a division of known plant. Even then, flowers from the seedlings from this parent plant are likely to be different colors.

Hellebores are a little more difficult to find in the nurseries, but given their year-round presence in the garden and easy care, they deserve a space in the garden.

Pat Munts is a Master Gardener. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com

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