Hellebore (Helleborus Niger)
Hellebore (Helleborus Niger) hel-LEB-or-us
Common name: (Christmas or Lenten rose)
Genus: Helleborus Family: Ranunculaceae Species: Niger (and various others)
Type: Perennial Hardiness: Zones 5a - 8b Bloom Time: February - May
Exposure: Dappled or partial shade. Height: 9" - 14" Spread: 15" - 20"
Description: The flowers have five petal-like sepals surrounding a ring of small, cup-like nectaries which are actually "petals" modified to hold nectar. The sepals do not fall as petals would, but remain on the plant, sometimes for many months. Some research suggests that the persistence of the sepals contributes to the development of the seeds.
Cultivation: Hellebores grow best in evenly moist but well-drained soil enriched with copious amounts of organic matter. Avoid planting in very dry or waterlogged soil. Do not plant hellebores too deeply as this can hinder flower production. Make sure the crown of the plant is just slightly buried beneath the soil. The flowers of hellebores are often hidden by the large leaves, so ensure they can be seen clearly by removing a few older leaves from the center of the clump. Exposing the flowers in this way will also help insects to pollinate the flowers and ensure good seed set for new plants that can be propagated from the resulting seed. Mulch annually with leaf mould, chipped bark or other organic matter.
Fertilizer: Plants will benefit from a light application of granular, balanced fertilizer in early spring or side-dress with compost and organic amendments when new growth appears. In autumn add lime to acid soil for H. x hybridus if a soil test shows a pH under 7.0.
Soil and pH: Rich, well drained soil. The hybrids known as Helleborus x hybridus (previously called Helleborus orientalis) prefer a soil pH close to neutral and even alkaline.
Watering: Water during dry spells.
Pests/Diseases: Watch for slug or snail damage, and control with baits or diatomaceous earth. Remove any dead, diseased or damaged foliage that can harbor hellebore leaf spot, an unsightly fungal disease.
Propogation/Transplanting: Although plants may be slow to settle in, once they do, they rarely need division and may resent it. However, if necessary, large clumps of named cultivars and most species can be increased by division in early spring, although many professional growers prefer to divide Oriental hybrids (Helleborus × hybridus) in September. For best results, split clumps into several pieces with at least one growth point, and water well until they are established. The new divisions may be slow to establish, due to the lack of fine roots, and flowering may be poor in the following year, but they are likely to settle in given time. Can also be propagated from seed.
Notes/Gardening Tips: Provide shelter from strong, cold winds. The Christmas Rose (H. niger) may be slow to become established; to help it along, try a dose of magnesium in the form of Epsom salts or dolomitic limestone sprinkled around the plants. In summer pull out any unwanted new seedlings as hybrids may not come true from seed; move desirable species seedlings to permanent locations. Groom plants by removing yellow or dead leaves. Do not prune back for winter,
Pruning: Do not prune in winter. Although evergreen, the foliage often looks tattered in early spring. Prune back dead and disfigured foliage before new growth appears. Remove old flower stems when they decline, cutting back to basal foliage, but take care not to remove the stems of Bear’s-foot Hellebore (H. foetidus), because they carry the flower buds formed in the previous growing season. If seedlings are not desired, remove old flowers before seed is set. A light mulch of salt marsh hay may be beneficial.
The so-called Christmas rose (H. niger), a traditional cottage garden favourite, bears its pure white flowers (which often age to pink) in the depths of winter; large-flowered cultivars are available, as are pink-flowered and double-flowered selections. In the northern hemisphere, they flower in early spring, around the period of Lent, and are often known as Lenten hellebores, oriental hellebores, or Lenten roses. The most popular hellebores for garden use are H. orientalis and its colourful hybrids (H. × hybridus). They are excellent for bringing early colour to shady borders and areas between deciduous shrubs and under trees.
Many species of hellebore have green or greenish-purple flowers. Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius), a robust plant with pale green, cup-shaped flowers and attractive leathery foliage, is widely grown. So is the 'stinking hellebore' or setterwort (H. foetidus), which has drooping clusters of small, pale green, bell-shaped flowers, often edged with maroon, which contrasts with its dark evergreen foliage. H. foetidus 'Wester Flisk', with red-flushed flowers and flower stalks, is becoming popular, as are more recent selections with golden-yellow foliage. The leaves of hellebores produce poisonous alkaloids, making them distasteful to animals. The poisonous alkaloids have been known to sometimes bother gardeners with sensitive skin.