Easy Does It

helleborus hybrids

If you are experiencing a spring astonishingly fast forwarded as I am, you have a garden usually sleepy in mid March that is marching dramatically on to a drummer you have never met before. I am struggling to keep up. I have 2 areas in my garden devoted to the cultivation of hellebores-why wouldn’t I?  Their leaves are evergreen until late winter.  Their flowers are intricate; the sepals are astonishingly colored.  Once established, they make big gorgeous clumps, even in fairly shady locations. It is the first perennial to break ground and bloom for me in the spring. This is one of my most favorite moments of the gardening year. 

helleborus orientalis

The leaves are stubbornly stalwart-they do not go brown until late in the winter.  The bare flower stalks emerge early in the spring; the new leaves will come later.  Just when gardeners are about to go mad from the endless grey and cold of the winter, they deliver.  The flowering stalks of helleborus orientalis emerge early in the spring-this usually means early April.  The sustained 80 degree temperatures had thrown my hellebores into full bloom in mid March.  My magnolias, PJM rhodendrons and maple trees were not far behind.  I have flowers everywhere, at a time I usually associate with the last of the winter.  

No matter how much I might write about the natural order of things, the real news is that I have hellebores blooming way ahead of my usual spring cleanup.  The late winter tattered leaves in concert with new bloom stalks-not my idea of a good look.  The early spring has caught me by surprise.  To say I was not ready for the hellebores to represent is putting it mildly. 

 My impulse was to clip and clean up-fast.  But how could I?  I am used to cutting off all of the dead foliage on a plant with one swipe, as I usually do this before the bloom stalks stir.  This year I had to proceed with caution, for fear I would mistake a bloom stalk for a leaf.  I did cut off two flowering stalks-how irritating.  One of my greatest spring pleasures has become a marathon I had no chance of winning.      

A fast cleanup given the very early and unseasonably warm weather might rake away a moment you do not want to miss. This clump of crocus was buried undeneath last years hellebore foliage.  Any carelessness on my part would have been disastrous. I am happy to say this little crosus clump was beautiful for 2 days, until the heat made it collapse in a heap.  But 2 days was better than no days.  I knew enough to take a picture, that this flowering would be ephemeral.  Beyond my shears, the only tool I put to this cleanup was my fingers.  Any garden accumulates leaves and sticks and other garden memorabilia over the winter.  Each bit came out of this garden one cautious handful at a time. 

 The new and tender shoots of your hellebores might benefit from those gentle fingers-they are so easy to break. New growth is as extraordinarily tender as it is beautiful.  Easy does it is the only way to do it.  So for 2 nights after work, and two weeks late to the game, I cleaned up my hellebore patches. 

My old hellebores are sprouting from seed like crazy this spring.  How pleased I am about this!  A gentle spring cleanup does not dislodge the babies.  My hellebores are grown with sweet woodriff, and crocus.  I interfere as little as possible with what goes on here.  I do not worry them about anything.  I water when they need it-that’s all.     

 

Rob’s Ivory Prince hellebores are planted in myrtle.  This taller vining groundcover can make the spring cleanup all the more time consuming.  He tells me the hellebore cleanup is finished-and on to the next part of his garden that needed cleanup a week ago.  Both of us have held off on any pruning-sure enough, night temperatures in the mid 30′s are forecast for next week.  The ride could get bumpier.  We’ve have snow and freezing temperatures in April plenty of times. 

My hellebore patch looks much better now.  Now on to the roses which are completely leafed out, and still sporting dead blooms from last fall.  And then there are the 6″ tall weeds in the isotoma and herniaria.  And the emerging leaves of Jack Frost brunnera encircled by their winter remains.  Have I mentioned that my holiday wreath and magnolia garland are both still in place?  And that the greens in my winter pots have gone brown with the heat?  My delphiniums are a foot tall.  My Magnolia Stellata started dropping petals after one 88 degree day in bloom.  My Yellow Butterflies magnolias are showing color.  My maples are blooming.  I have talked of nothing else to Buck for 2 days.  In celebration of my out of season garden and my attending hand wringing for the last 2 days,  he drummed up some of his favorite Christmas music for me last night.  What else could he possibly do for me?  Funny, that guy.  Not so funny, this weather. 

 

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.