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.

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.