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Beautiful, long-lasting flowers, tough evergreen foliage, strong deer-resistance and a survivor’s zest for life – the Lenten rose is truly a lasting, lovely addition to most Zone 4-9 gardens.
Yet gardeners are often late to come to these beauties (also well known as hellebores), spying them blooming in someone else’s garden in the late winter or early spring and quite rightly wondering, ‘Where have you been all my life?”
In previous years, the answer has had much to do with a season of bloom that doesn’t coincide with the most popular seasons in a garden center, and thus relegates them to ‘specialty plants’ for the discerning gardener. But luckily, things are changing out there.
The incredible variety in hybrids available, paired with ease of acquisition in a digitally connected world has brought these special plants into the spotlight, giving gardeners the chance to showcase them in their own gardens and begin to build winter and early spring interest into the bones of their otherwise high-season gardens.
Although there are some species of hellebore that are deciduous, most are evergreen, and sport strong, palmate leaves 4-6” across with serrated margins. Plants grow approximately 12” tall and will spread up to 18” wide. In late winter, tightly-budded flowers appear near the crown of the plant, and as winter transitions into very early spring, the flower stems reach above the foliage and unfold in colors that range from the blackest of purples to the most delicate of filmy pinks.
Greens, yellows, burgundies and purest white – there are few colors that aren’t expressed in the single or double blooms of a hellebore. The nodding flowers invite the gardener to bend down and have a closer look, but in recent years, many hybrids have been bred to hold their flowers upright and facing out from the center of the plant.
The flowers are exceptionally long lived – sometimes remaining for as long as three months or more, yet this has much to do with the fact that they are not actually flowers, but sepals. Thus, as the season goes on, they tend to darken and become coarser. Many gardeners cut back any spoiled late-season foliage as the flowers begin to emerge, but it is important to wait until they have moved past the budding stage, as older foliage can protect the young buds from damage.
As the flowers fade and are cut back, new foliage will begin to sprout from the crown, eventually shading soil and preventing other weeds from emerging. This is the time to remove all old foliage and relish the mounding habit of fresh, new leaves which will provide a green backdrop for other flowering plants such as primroses in the spring, or toad lilies in the fall.
In late summer or early fall, you can divide larger clumps with a sharp knife, potting up smaller divisions and keeping a close eye on them as they adjust to their new reality and become strong enough to plant back in the garden. Plant larger divisions back into the soil. They will pout, as their root systems are extensive and you’re not likely to get all of the roots when digging, but with care they will once again thrive. Don’t expect to get flowers from these new divisions until they have had a full year in the ground.
For easier propagation, enjoy the promiscuous behavior of hellebores, which cross pollinate with abandon and will fill surrounding soil with new seedlings. Seedlings do not come absolutely true from seed, so if you’re enjoying the color and habit of a specific hellebore, you’ll need to divide it or buy a few more.
Hellebores are a terrific plant for the beginner gardener as they tolerate many types of soil and a fair amount of neglect. Although they are truly at home in a rich, humusy, well-drained soil in a sunny position, they are actually grown more often in shadier areas and can tolerate dry shade very well when established.
The crucial time for a hellebore is not during times of drought – it is in the first year or two it is in the ground. One of the only things they will not abide is water-logged soil, particularly in the winter. Wet, cold feet will kill them.
However, just because hellebores can tolerate dry shade and poorer soil doesn’t mean that they should. Taking time to amend your soil with rich organic material and ensuring that they are kept evenly moist will allow you to get the very best from this fantastic plant. When you see what ‘the best’ can be, it will inspire you to keep your soil fertile and your hellebores very happy!
For those who feel they are gardening with deer always in the rearview mirror, I’ve saved the best for last. Hellebores are simply not on the menu. Their leaves are toxic and avoided by our largest garden pest. This makes them a great choice for tough hillsides or entrances outside a fence line.
One of the very best placements for a few hellebores is near your front entrance. Group a few together, perhaps add a dozen snowdrops and a few early crocus bulbs and you’ll find yourself smiling on your way in the door while everyone else pulls their coats tighter and grits their teeth against the wind.
About the Author: Marianne Willburn is a columnist, blogger and author of the new book "Big Dreams, Small Garden: Creating Something Extraordinary in Your Ordinary Space." Originally from California, she now gardens in Virginia – read more at www.smalltowngardener.com.
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