All About Hellebores

Hellebores are beautifully unique with bowl-shaped, pastel colored flowers in late winter.

hellebore flower

Are you searching for a winter blooming perennial to plant in your early-season garden? Hellebores are unique flowers that bloom in winter and spring. Their foliage remains evergreen year-round.

These winter plants add beauty to your garden without waiting for spring. Read on to learn all about the unique flowering Lenten rose hellebore (Helleborus) plant.

What Are Helleborus Plants?

Hellebore plant (scientific name Helleborus), commonly known as Lenten rose, Christmas rose, and Winter rose, are winter flowering plants. The common names of hellebores indicate that they produce rose-like blossoms, but they are not closely related to the Rosaceae family. Instead, they belong to the family Ranunculaceae.

Flowers are large and flat, borne on short stems from midwinter to early spring. Their foliage remains ornamental and lovely year-round.

Many species of Lenten rose have low-quality poisonous characteristics, meaning they can be moderately toxic if eaten in significant quantities. The scientific name Helleborus originates from the Greek words “helein,” which means injuries, and “bora,” meaning food. Basically, the Helleborus genus refers to their mildly toxic properties when eaten. The Greek word “niger” in H. niger means black refers to the color of its roots.

The Origin of Helleborus Plants

The Helleborus genus originated in Europe and Asia. Therefore, these are natives to Southern and Central Europe and from Slovenia to Macedonia. Some atypical species of Lenten rose are found in a small area between the Syrian and Turkish borders. You can spot them in the mountains and on stony clay soils.


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Varieties of Helleborus Plants

There are around 20 species of the Helleborus genus. These evergreen perennials hybridize easily and produce improved hybrids in different colors. Most Helleborus plants for sale are available in a mix of colors. However, single-colored hybrids are also popular and are great addition to the winter garden.

The varieties below are most used for decorative purposes and in pollinator gardens.

Helleborus orientalis

Commonly known as Lenten roses, these are the most popular hellebores valued by gardeners due to various colored blooms, including white, maroon, purple, and apricot. Often, these are named Lenten hellebores since they bloom in early spring in the northern hemisphere during the Catholic period of Lent. These are best grown in shady herbaceous borders, between herbaceous shrubs, and under trees.

Helleborus niger

Also known as the Christmas rose, it blooms faster than other varieties of hellebores. For instance, Christmas rose blooms in areas with mild winters as early as December. They produce white flowers that often turn pink as the plant ages. The flowers of the Christmas rose face out rather than facing down as with other hellebore varieties. “Ivory prince” is a common cultivar of Helleborus niger.

Helleborus foetidus

Commonly called stinking or setterworts, this variety’s flowers have an unpleasant aroma. Hellebores bloom between late winter and early spring. They have reddish stems, dark evergreen foliage, and pale green, globe shaped flowers with red edges.

Helleborus argutifolius

It is also known as Corsican Hellebore, a robust yet elegant plant with pale green cup-shaped flowers. Its leathery foliage looks attractive and adds beauty to your garden.

Helleborus x hybridus

These are the hybrid varieties with Helleborus orientalis as the principal parent. They produce clusters of plain or patterned saucer-shaped flowers in many colors, including pink, green, and smoky purple.

Helleborus x ericsmithii

It is an unusual three-way hybrid producing pale greenish-pink flowers that darken when matured.

Helleborus Plants Hardiness Zones

Hellebore plant or Lenten rose is hardy to USDA zones 3 to 9, retaining its green foliage throughout the winter. These are early bloomers since they blossom from January to March. In USDA zones 3 and 4, Lenten roses grow well if plants have a good snow cover. They can even survive under the snow, but their evergreen foliage flattens to the ground. Check the hardiness zone designation of your selected varieties when buying.


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Helleborus Plant Characteristics

Hellebores are perennials, easy to grow and maintain, winter-flowering plants that don’t freeze in winter. Typically, these are woodland edge plants that thrive well in rich moisture-retentive soil. Mature plants are 18 to 24 inches tall and spread in clumps from, 24 to 30 inches wide. They grow low to the ground and have clusters of flowers that face downwards or upwards. The shape and color of the foliage can vary within plants of the same hybrid. The leaves are divided into 7 to 9 segments in an umbrella shape with most Helleborus varieties having dark green evergreen foliage that remains attractive throughout the season.

Hellebores are shade-loving and deer-resistant plants that grow in well-drained soil under high-branched trees. However, they still need light to bloom profusely. The Lenten rose variety of Helleborus will self-seed if not cut after the formation of seed pods, usually in July.

Helleborus flower buds form during the previous summer season. In late winter, flower spikes start appearing from the underground rhizome. Flowers have 5 petal-like sepals that surround a ring of small cup-shaped nectaries. These nectaries are petals modified to hold the nectar. Many stamens and pistols are present inside the circle of petals. After pollination, the sepals don’t fall off, but the stamens and petals do. Sepals remain on the plants for the next few months and contribute to seed formation.

When to Plant Hellebores?

You can plant hellebores at any time of the year. Just make sure that the ground is not frozen. However, the best planting time is from autumn to spring. Available in one-quart sizes, and ready for planting.

Where to Plant Hellebores?

Once you are ready to plant Lenten rose or hellebores, the next step is to select the right location in your garden. These flowering plants prefer full or partial shade and grow best in well-drained soil. The plant may struggle in boggy and wet conditions. Make sure to protect them from harsh winter winds and full summer sun. Also, read the growing instructions for the variety you choose.

Hellebores grow well in part sun in the Midwest but need shade in the South. You can plant hellebore Lenten rose at the front of a border, under large-branched trees, on the north or east sides of walls, on a slope or raised area where the gardeners can enjoy downward-facing blooms from underneath, or in pots in the shade to partial shade (too much shade impacts flowering).

How to Plant Hellebores

You can plant hellebores or Lenten roses from potted specimens and are likely to include a mix of colors. If you need a particular variety, buy potted starts because they are hybridized for specific colors.

Site Selection

Planting hellebores between March and August allows roots to establish for late winter blooms. The best site for growing Lenten rose is underneath deciduous trees. While the tree branches are bare in winter; plants receive full sunlight. When the tree grows back in summer, the plants become shaded.

Soil Preparation

Once you select a shady spot in your garden with well-drained soil, prepare the planting site by adding a spadesful of garden compost. It will help plants get nutrition and settle into the ground. However, avoid fertilizers since they can burn the delicate roots after transplantation.

Planting

If you are planting divisions or root plants in the pots, keep the root crowns at the soil level, not more than an inch deep. The root crown is the place where the stem joins the roots. Hellebore root crowns are susceptible to rot so avoid burying them. When planting, space the holes 15 inches apart to allow for spread.

Wear gloves while handling the plants since they can cause mild skin irritation due to their mildly toxic nature. Loosen the soil around the roots if they are compacted and place them in the holes. Cover with soil and gently firm the plants. Water immediately to hydrate the plants.


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How to Propagate Helleborus Plants?

Propagation through divisions

The best way to propagate Helleborus plants is by division. You can divide evergreen Hellebores in the late fall before new leaves emerge. However, divide the plants that lose leaves in summer once they have finished flowering.

For propagating, tie the plant leaves in early spring. Dig around and under the root zones and gently separate the rhizomes. Shake or wash the extra soil. Each division should have at least 3 buds. Use a sharp knife to divide between growth buds. Carefully plant each section and water immediately. It may take one year of recovery period before the plant produces flowers.

Propagation through seeds

Another option is collecting new seeds and growing your own plants in the early spring, propagating hellebores from seeds rather than a division is suitable for stemmed varieties. Sow seeds and keep the soil moist but not overly wet. Seeds need sunlight for germination. Transplant the seedlings into pots or semi-shaded garden beds. However, some varieties, such as the Christmas rose, can be challenging to establish if grown from seeds.

The newly propagated hellebore plants need extra care outdoors during the first year. Young seedlings are susceptible to frost damage. That’s why you should wait before transferring them outdoors and keep them indoors in a cool place such as an unheated garage or greenhouse until the danger of frost has passed. Young plants should not be placed in the full sun since it can stunt their growth. Once the frost danger has gone, you can place them outdoors.

Self-seeding:

You can also let hellebores self-seed and produce plants of different colors and shapes than parents. Then, you can transfer them to various locations in the garden or make your own hybrids.

How to Care for Helleborus Plants

Hellebore Lenten roses are hardy and require minimum care once established. Avoid moving established Hellebores since they may struggle.

Water

Young hellebores require one inch of water per week. Once established, they can tolerate dry conditions. Keep the soil moist in partial shade. Once the plant develops new growth and starts blooming, reduce watering and only water well in dry conditions. Also, avoid wet conditions for too long to prevent rotting.

Soil

Helleborus plants prefer well-drained soil rich in organic matter. They grow best in neutral and even alkaline conditions. You can amend acidic soil with lime.

Light

Hellebore Lenten rose grows best in partial to full shade. They can tolerate spring sun, but direct summer sunlight can scorch the leaves. Therefore, a good place to plant them is under the shade of deciduous trees.

Temperature and humidity

Most Helleborus plant varieties are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9. They can also tolerate a wide range of humidity. Just make sure to protect the plants from harsh winter winds.

Fertilizer

If you plant hellebore Lenten rose in soil rich in organic matter, you may not need to add chemical fertilizers. Just an application of compost in spring or a light sprinkling of slow-release organic fertilizer will be sufficient for these plants.

Pruning

Late winter or early spring is the right time to prune Helleborus plants as soon as the new growth appears. Cut back the large leathery leaves, slicing them precisely with sharp pruning shears as close to the base as possible. Leaving old growth for too long on the plant can cause entangling with new growth making it harder to trim. Wear gloves and thoroughly clean shears after pruning.

Overwintering

Once your plants finish flowering for the season in the late summer or late fall, prepare them for winter according to your climate. These plants are cold-hardy, and most evergreen varieties don’t need to be trimmed to the ground since they remain green throughout the winter months.

But the leaves may turn brown and droop if you live in an area with harsh winters. In this case, cut the old leaves and prune the plants to the ground. Wait until the weather conditions become favorable in late winter or early spring. Then, let the plant send up new shoots and blooms. In these areas, you can insulate the soil with a layer of mulch.

Common Problems with Hellebores

Generally, hellebore Lenten rose is pest and disease tolerant but susceptible to aphid attack and diseases transmitted by these pests. If you notice sticky residue secreted by aphids on the plants, use organic insecticide or neem oil to treat the plants.

Leaf spot, downy mildew, and black death are other common diseases of Helleborus plants. Treat the plants with fungicides in case of severe leaf spots and downy mildew. Removing the affected plant part may also help prevent the spread of the disease.

However, in the case of “Black death”, you may need to remove the entire plant. Aphids are the leading cause of the black death. Controlling aphids can prevent plants from being affected by this disease.

FAQs

What are the ideal uses of hellebore Lenten rose in your garden?

Hellebores make ideal cut flowers. They add color and beauty to foundations, borders, and other shady spots in your landscape. The Christmas rose is ideal for cottage gardens and all Helleborus plants are suitable for pollinator gardens and they provide nectar to pollinators when other flowers are not blooming.

Do hellebores do well in pots?

Hellebores form an extensive root system or rhizome. So, you’ll need a large pot to plant them. Thin out the plants once they self-seed to prevent overcrowding.

Do hellebores change color?

Yes, hellebore plants change color, and it’s perfectly normal. Some white species turn pink as they age. For instance, pale greenish pink flowers of H.x ericsmithii darken as the plant grows.

Can hellebores grow indoors?

Yes, you can grow hellebore Lenten rose indoors if you provide the right growing conditions. But due to their mildly toxic nature, keep these plants away from kids and pets. You can start hellebore Lenten rose seeds indoors but transplant them in a shady location outdoors because they need sunlight for blooming. Remember, plant them under the shade of deciduous trees so they get sunlight in spring but shade in the summer.

How long do hellebores take to mature?

Hellebore may take 18 months to mature and reach the size of 18 to 24 inches (1.5 to 2 feet). The hellebore Lenten rose grown from seeds may take a few years to reach this size.