Awash In Hellebores

helleborus.jpgI am embarrassed to complain, given what the people in Boston have endured this winter, but I will say it.  We have had a long tough winter. We had the better part of Boston’s snow last year. This year, no heart or record breaking snow, but plenty of snow nonetheless. The snow I could plow through, and shrug off. The tough part was an interminable run of very cold weather, lots of it below zero. Dressing for a trip outdoors was an event the likes of which was almost intolerable. Boots, gloves, coat, hat, and lots of layers in between. All of this piling on took lots of time. That effort did not come to much good-the cold was bone chilling.  No one took the arctic winter poorer than the corgis. Every day they would plead with me to change the channel. They were bored and irritable. It was a daily thing, wanting to be let out every possible door to the outside-in hopes one would reveal habitable weather.  The spring in Michigan does not come easy or in an orderly fashion. Mother nature takes her time, deciding when the season will change from winter to spring. We have been made to wait.

detroit garden works helleboresWe feel better about the weather, having worked to introduce our own indoor version of spring. In March, we take delivery of over 1000 hellebores from growers all over the US and Canada. We invite gardeners in our area to come, browse and review our collection, and speak for them. We mean to offer gardeners a respite the winter, with our hellebore festival. It takes a few days, but our greenhouse space is starting to look like and smell  like a garden. Our March weather seems to be moderating-we have hope we are on a track to spring.  But if the spring outdoors is practically still weeks off,  we have a version of spring in our greenhouse. Should the spring be a few weeks off, the hellebores are content to reside in  sunny window until the ground outside can be worked.hellebores_double_pink_strain__84306Hellebores are a hardy perennial in our zone. Many of them are hardy in zone 4; most of them are eminently hardy in zone 5.  I treasure them, as they are the first perennial to bloom in my garden in April.  Hellebore foliage is large, and will persist long past the fall and into the winter. In warmer zones, the foliage is evergreen. The Orientalis hybrids throw their bloom stalks very early in the spring, arising out of the declining foliage from the previous season. The new foliage which is to come after the blooming is lush and substantive. They are tolerant of a wide range of conditions in the garden. I grow them in full sun, but I water them when they need it.  They are equally as happy in a lightly shaded location. They can live and increase in a garden for many years, without any need for division. Deer do not touch them. The flowers are surprisingly large, and quite beautiful.

detroit garden works helleboresThe flowers of the hellebores my Mom grew in her garden 50 years ago did not look like these. The blooms were nodding-down facing. To enjoy her bell shaped flowers required getting down on the ground to look up into their faces. She would cut them, and put them in a vase in the kitchen window.  Her favorites were the white and green flowered hellebores, as the pink cultivars were a muddy not so appealing pink.  It took years to grow on a hellebore to a decent size, as they were only available as young starts.  There was always lots more foliage than flowers. Nonetheless, she loved the look of them in her shade/wildflower garden.  Their foliage would last the entire summer and beyond, unlike the spring bulbs and ephemeral wildflowers she cultivated. The hellebore world has changed dramatically since then.

pink flowering helleboresThis group of plants have been the subject of intense breeding all over the globe. A lot of attention has been devoted to breeding plants who flowers are out and up facing. Some breeders have produced strains of hellebores with double flowers, or unusual coloration. Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne, who own Northwest Garden Nurseries, have bred some stunning strains of hellebores.  The same can be said for Judith and Dick Tyler who own and operate Pine Knot Farms. These names are just two of a long list of hellebore enthusiasts who breed and sell plants in Belgium, Germany, England, Japan, the US and Canada.

detroit gardenworks helleboresMost of the plants in the greenhouse are hybrids of helleboris Orientalis. Helleborus Orientalis is not a species of hellebore, strictly speaking. It is a plant which is an interspecific cross from a number of different species hellebores-the O’Byrnes think maybe more than 16 species have a part in what is properly known as helleborus x hybridus. They do not come true from seed, so many of these named varieties are referred to as such and such “strain” of hellebore.  Given that the plants may take 3 years to flower, many breeders sell their young plants with pictures that show the possible color range. The advent of tissue culture has made it possible to clone specific plants, and make them available to interested gardeners.  My discussion of the history and science is quite limited-for a detailed look at hellebores, do visit the website of Plant Delights Nursery. Some of the hellebores we have came from a trip Rob made there a few weeks ago.  Tony Advent does a terrific job making great garden plants available to serious gardeners.  He also does a great job of providing an overview of the history and proper culture of the plants he sells.

dscn1230The hybridizing of hellebores to produce stronger growing and beautifully flowered hellebore cultivars has been a shot heard round the world. Today, hybridizers in Europe, Canada, Japan and the US have created cultivars featuring study and garden worthy plants, and breathtaking flowers. The vast majority of the plants we have available now are cultivars that have a proven performance record. And we feature large sized plants that are old enough to produce a good crop of flowers from the start. But we also have a limited number of one of a kind plants that would appeal to a hellebore collector.

detroit garden works helleboresI did buy a collection of named hellebores last February from a nursery in British Columbia, Canada, named Fraser’s Thimble Farms.  They ship small plants to the US, bare root. I did have to pot them up, and baby them along in the window sill of my drawing studio until they took hold. I finally planted the entire lot of them in a patch in my garden that used to be occupied by some not so wonderful looking yews. Just yesterday I could see that the snow had melted, and all of those small plants look like they survived our winter. I am not expecting all of them to bloom this spring, but I have hopes.

h 5We do have gardeners come in who are not familiar with hellebores. This is not so surprising. Some nurseries are reluctant to carry plants that take 3 years to flower from seed, or are already out of bloom in May.  The good news for gardeners is what appears to be the flower is actually a modified calyx, or petal like structures that surround the actual flower. The flower is in the center, and these true petals will drop when the flowering period is over. But the calyx persist on the plants for months, giving the appearance of a really long bloom time. Still, I try to site hellebores in spots that make them easy to view in early spring.

Detroit Garden Works hellebores March 2015 (16)Hellebores also make great container plants.  Everything we ordered for our collection is in, and our Hellebore festival is slated for Friday March 20 through Sunday March 22. Can you come ahead? Of course.

Helleborus Festivalis


Detroit Garden Works plans to hold its first ever spring festival the weekend of March 21, 22, and 23.   We are calling the event the Helleborus Festivalis, in celebration of one of our most favorite spring flowering perennials, the hellebore.  Rob has spent weeks traveling to and ordering from nurseries all over the US and Canada, in order for us to have a collection available that will enchant both gardeners unfamiliar with hellebores, and long time serious collectors.  I have had lots of emails requesting more information on exactly what plants we have available, and in what sizes.  This post is some about our love for hellebores, and more about the specifics.  600 hellebores have been delivered over the past 2 weeks-to follow is a the Helleborus Festivalis preview.  Helleborus Onyx Odyssey, pictured above, is certainly one of the most striking varieties we have been able to obtain.

Helleborus-Black-Odyssey.jpgThis very dark and inky wine red double hellebore was bred by Marietta O’Byrne in Eugene, Oregon, and and introduced into commerce in 2008.  We have 20 in bloom 1 gallon size stocky plants available.  This cultivar is most definitely not the helleborus orientalis my Mom grew.  The O’Byrne’s breeding program has turned over the hellebore world.

helleborus-orientalis-hybrids.jpgOther 1 gallon size hellebores, pictured above from left to right, helleborus Spring Promise Conny, which features white blooms with distinctive dark wine red speckles.  Also pictured,  Spring Promise Elly, a double rose pink, the heavy flowering single flowering Merlin, and Spring Promise Bridget, a frilly single pink.  As with helleborus Onyx Odyssey, these hellebores are all blooming.  Have the idea to scout what cultivars you might want to grow or add to your collection?  We have other hellebores in bloom.  Mahogany Snow.  Icebreaker Fancy.  Icebreaker Prelude.  Our Icebreaker Corsica is already sold out-sorry.

helleborus-Snow-Frills.jpgSnow Frills is a semi double to double pure white.  Breaktakingly beautiful, the flowers of this hellebore.  This sturdy plant comes in an 8″ pot with multiple blooms, as pictured.  Snow Frills is that new cultivar of hellebore which features outfacing or upfacing flowers.  If you like white flowers in the spring, this cultivar may interest you.

one-gallon-hellebores.jpgBoth Snow Frills and Merlin are substantial blooming plants in 8 inch pots.  Merlin is a single blush pink, and clearly a heavy bloomer.

Helleborus-Spring-Promise-Elly.jpgThis picture is a closeup of the bloom of the Spring Promise cultivar known as Elly. The double flowers are astonishing in color and form .  We have a limited number of 1 gallon blooming plants available.

spring-promise-hellebores.jpgWe have a select group pf 4.5 inch pots of hellebores ready.  Though these are smaller plants, many of them are blooming.

helleborus winter-jewel-Golden-Lotus.jpgGolden Lotus is a strain of double flowered yellow hellebores exhibiting subtly different characteristics.  Though every plant is distinctly individual, every member of this seed strain group is stellar. All of our 4.5 inch plants are blooming.

helleborus-Black-Diamond.jpgBlack Diamond is just that-jet black.  None of these 4.5 inch plants are in bloom.  If you have a mind to have faith in a long history of breeding and a plant not in flower, we have healthy lustily growing plants available.

perennial_m_Helleborus x hybridus Winter Jewel Cherry BlossomWe have  four flats of 4.5 inch helleborus Winter Jewel Cherry Blossom available for purchase.  Only one plant has a flower. This cultivar is a must have, in my opinion.  Most nurseries offer just a few cultivars for sale, in their green state.  This makes them easy to miss.  Hellebores grow slowly.  Few cultivars grow on to blooming size in one season.  If you are a gardener willing to take chances, sign up for a Cherry Blossom.  Next spring, the anemone flowered blooms will enchant you.

helleborus-festivalis.jpgIn this picture, Spring Promise Bridget is sharing the stage with flats of English daisies.  We do have a number of other spring flowering perennials in stock as companions to our hellebores.  Bellis, double flowering primroses, and several cultivars of auricula primroses are available along with dwarf daffodils and hyacinths.

helleborus-Pink-Frost.jpgWe do have some 2 gallon pots of hellebores available.  Joseph Lemper is a white hellebore blooming very early in the spring.  The Pink Frost Hellebore pictured above- big plants.

perennial_m_helleborus x hybridus winter jewel golden sunrise9

This Winter Jewels Golden Sunrise-we have this plant in one gallon size.  Though our plants are not flowering, the promise of what is to come is clear.  We also have good sized divisions of the pale yellow hellebore, Spring Promise “Sally”.

helleborus-festivalis.jpgThis has been a very long and very trying winter.  Detroit Garden Works has the idea to jump start spring. Helleborus Festivalis-a week from tomorrow. With a collection of hellebores and accompanying plants that are eminently garden worthy.  If you are a collector, or a gardener willing to gamble, we have a few divisions of rarer hellebores available.  White Lady, Frilly Kitty, Tiffany, Valerie, WD Elegance White, WD Pale Pink, Winter Jewel Sparkling Diamond, Winter Jewel Double Painted, Winter Jewel Jade Tiger, Winter Thriller Green Gambler-email me for details. We are ready for spring-what about you?

The White On The Way

White_Trillium_Trillium_grandiflorum_Flower_2613pxHas the thought of spring crossed my mind yet?  Oh yes.  The fierce cold, the heavy snow and the ice of the past 3 weeks has made it easy to daydream about spring. Better than 30 years ago I was able one October to buy five acres of rolling land (burdened with an utterly dysfunctional house) blessed with a substantial stand of trillium grandiflorum – the native Michigan trillium.  I was not expecting them, but in late April, there they were.  I was enchanted.  The three lobed flowers are almost as large as the leaves-showy. The trillium blooming provoked an interest in Michigan wildflowers.

Double_SanguinariaOver a period of years, I added lots of other wild flowers to that spot. I would guess it was 2500 square feet or so, dominated by a few old ash and locust trees.  The ground had not be disturbed for many years, or had any of the leaves been removed.  But for the tree roots, one could dig in this compost based soil with 2 fingers. The double bloodroot pictures above from Wikimedia never made large colonies, but what I had was persistent.  The main trick was to check the plants as often as possible once they come in to bud.  Any warm weather or wind, and the petals would drop.  Looking every bit like a cross between a miniature peony and a waterlily, they might be in bloom but a few hours a year.

anemone nemerosa vestal

I did spend a few years working for Francis Hughes in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  His nursery was unusual, in that he sold native wildflowers dug from his own extensive gardens.  One plant which I especially admired was anemone nemerosa. I can still remember him digging me a small start from which he shook off all of the soil.  He made a point of telling customers that he did not sell his soil.  I was sure my unceremoniously bare rooted plant would not survive, but this plant and many others did indeed grow. The cultivar “Vestal”, pictured above courtesy of, is a hybrid noted for its prominent anemone center.

anemone blanda is is not native to Michigan, but its white flowers come early in the spring.  The small corms are planted in the fall.  I soak the dark brown nuggets for 24 hours before planting them 2-3 inches below ground.  The 6 inch tall plants will readily colonize large areas – even weedy or grassy areas –  if they are happy.  The purple and pink varieties are lovely, but I love the white the best. A few hundred bulbs planted in the untended remains of an orchard multiplied many times over.  This picture is from John Sheepers bulbs.

Alabaster_closeupWhite epimedium, a perennial groundcover, spreads more slowly and blooms later than other species, but it is well worth the trouble.  They are tolerant of dry shade, which makes them an ideal addition to a wild flower garden with mature trees.  They bloom on foot tall slender stalks, the new foliage coming after the flowers.  This picture- from

DSCN2299 cropThe yellow species trout lily is a familiar face in the Michigan spring wildflower garden, but the white epimedium conalba “Alabaster” is strikingly beautiful.  They are fairly easy to grow, but can take years to flower.  They are well worth the wait.  Like many other wildflowers, the plants go entirely dormant once the trees get their leaves, and the rain is less reliable.  Wild flowers are frequently referred to as garden ephemerals, as their dormant season comes early in the summer.  The photograph above is from

Dodecatheon_meadia_1Dodecatheon media is commonly referred to as shooting star.  This is a good description for these diminutive flowers with extremely reflexed petals.  The foliage is lettuce-lush and juicy looking. They are easy to grow, and will colonize readily when happy.  This picture is from

white-helleborus-orientalis.jpgHellebores are not naive, or are they wild flowers.  They are perennials with mostly evergreen foliage.  But no discussion of white flowers in early spring would be complete without them.  Helleborus orientalis is commonly known as the Lenten rose, as it blooms at that time of year.  They are one of my favorite perennials, as they are as beautiful in leaf as they are in flower.  There are numerous cultivars, each one more lovely than the last.

white hepaticaFor whatever reason, hepatica was always my favorite spring wildflower.  The area where I lived 30 years ago was decidedly rural, but on the cusp of development.  Whole neighborhoods full of homes were built nearby, after the land was scraped clean of any and every plant.  I dug many a clump of hepatica out of the way of a bulldozer, and relocated them to my property.  With a little oak leaf mold, and slightly swampy conditions, they were very happy.  I like to believe they are still  thriving from benign neglect in those spots, as I know that garden has not been touched by the owner who came after me.  This photograph via

dutchman's breechesDutchman’s Breeches are a wilding bleeding heart.  The plants feature serrated blue green leaves in profusion.  The bleeding hearts are arranged all along a small arching stem.  They were very shy bloomers for me.  Charming, these.

solomons sealSolomon’s Seal has a similar arrangement of individual blooms.  The foliage is also arranged along the stem.  The plant is quite tall, and vigorous.  Some gardeners prefer the variety sporting white variegated leaves, but I have always liked the more subtle species.  I found this great picture at

Jeffersonia diphyllaJeffersonia Diphylla is commonly known as twin leaf.  Though this picture does not do justice to the leaf structure, what appears to be 2 leaves at the end of a leaf stalk is actually one leaf, deeply divided.  This wildflower was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson by his friend and fellow botanist William Bartram. Only one other species of Jeffersonia is known, and it is native to Japan.  Why that would be, I have no idea. This photograph is from

Viola_canadensis_(Orvokki)_Kanadaviol_C_DSC03075Last but not least, Viola Canadensis, the Canada violet.  They are quite rare in some places they are known to be native, but they grew vigorously for me.  All of the violets were willing and able to cover the ground.  Once the wildflowers went dormant, there were plenty of violets covering the ground.  Sweet, that.  Very sweet to think that a lot will be happening in the garden in the not so distant future.

Helleborus Orientalis

Rob bought a slew of greenhouse grown hellebores in 8″ pots for our opening last weekend.  They were absolutely stunning.  Beautifully grown plants were loaded with flowers and buds coming on-much like the plants in my garden in mid April.  Hellebores are one of my most favorite perennials, for reasons not limited to their breathtaking flowers.  This variety-helleborus orientalis “Spring Promise”.

Helleborus orientalis blooms very early in our season with flowers much like a single rose- thus the common name Lenten Rose.  Native to many parts of Europe, the largest collection of species are native to the Balkans.  This means they are quite cold and frost tolerant.  The thick leathery foliage is semi-evergreen in my zone.  This means the leaves look great all season long, and on into late winter.  Only the foliage of peonies compares in substance and color.  A mass of hellebores makes a very good looking groundcover. 

They thrive in moisture retentive soil rich in organic matter.  They are remarkably tolerant of shade, although my collection is in full sun, on the north side of some densely growing Picea Mucrunulatum. The flowers are relatively large for a plant growing under 18 inches tall; plants which are properly situated will bloom heavily.

However, hellebores do not increase in size very rapidly. My group took almost 5 years to make a decently fabulous spring display. This also means large plants, if you can find them, can be very pricey.  The plants that Rob sourced are the largest I have ever seen for sale, and this particular cultivar is quite beautiful.  Blush white flowers surround electric lime green nectaries-gorgeous.  The red stems, and dark green leaves are handsome.     

Hellebore flowers are comprised of 5 petals, which are actually sepals, surrounded by a ring of cup shaped nectaries.  The flower on the right still has its nectaries intact.  These sepals will remain on a plant for months after the bloom period.  They appear as though they are still in bloom long after the bloom period is over.  Some speculate that these persistent sepals aid in the production and viability of the seed. 

helleborus orientalis

 We did buy some smaller plants, which we promptly potted up into small clay pots.  Hellebores grown in a greenhouse can be forced to bloom ahead of their normal bloom period.  They are a refreshing and sophisticated change from forced hyacinths and tulips.  Once the flowers fade, they can be planted out in the garden. This variety of hellebore is called “Cinnamon Snow”.

 This bloom has matured, and dropped all of its stamens and nectaries.  It is clear their is a seed developing in the center of the protective ring of sepals.  Hellebores will seed prolifically, if they are happy.  I clean up my hellebores very gingerly in the spring-I do not want to disturb any seedlings that might be germinating.  I plan to cut back the tattered foliage from last year tomorrow, as I am sure the flowers are already emerging from the ground. 

spring blooming hellebores

On closer inspection, I can see signs of life.  I can tell from the dark color of the buds that this hellebore will have dark flowers.  The stems of last years leaves are laying on the ground now-it is time to snip them off.  It is a beautiful moment when the flowers are in bloom, before the new year’s leaves have begun to emerge. 

  Another hellebore with closer proximity to my spruce is showing the effects of that protective location.  The buds are much further along than those in more exposed locations.


This hellebore is white blooming.  I will confess that I like the green and white blooming hybrids the best, but each and every one of them is lovely.

pink blooming hellebore

It will not be long before my garden has this spring look.  But for now, I have a few plants of Helleborus “Spring Promise” to tide me over.