Garden variety hellebores are still the best

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The upper middle hybrid is pretty, but doesn’t do nearly as well as the others here.

Like many shade gardeners, I am in love with hellebores. They start flowering in March (or earlier) and some stay in bloom right into May. Deer, though not a problem for me, hate them; it’s easy to figure out why—just grab a handful of the plant’s sharp, raspy foliage. After bloom, the foliage provides lush structure.

This is lovely close-up, but has yet to make much of an an impact as a plant.

And here’s the best part—there is really no need to spend a fortune on the rarest hybrids. I’ve seen plants for $30 each on the Plant Delights site, and I bought some for around the $20 mark, but the ones that have performed the best for me are the common Helleborus x hybridus plants I bought from Wayside years ago for maybe $6.99 each. The plants are supposed to be the same, but one is pure white and the other includes shades of light mauve and green; they’re both single. I also have several other white varieties whose names I have forgotten that are also thriving. Not so for my deep burgundy and rose doubles, which were expensive, but, at least five years on, fail to provide more than 5–6 blooms each. I’ve also seen some exotic spotted yellows, deep-veined roses, pure reds, and double everythings from breeders in England. A writer for the Financial Times recommends liquid fertilizer twice a year, but I’ve never done anything for any of mine except throw down some compost when I happen to think of it.

This is one of the oldest clumps, right under a maple tree.

Bottom line: in my shady garden, especially at this time of year, the white hellebores simply look better from any vantage point, while the darker ones sort of fade into the landscape and need close-up photography to really shine.

My top advice to all shade gardeners: plant hellebores—but go for quantity, not rarity.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. I have hellebores that I got as 25 cent seedlings at a bazaar. Every year people ooh and ahh over them. They’re larger than one normally sees.

  2. In my humble opinion, the best hellebore is the glorious deep purple one (not to be confused with the band Deep Purple) that Allen Bush shared with me earlier this spring. The hellebore has taken residence beneath my viburnum, and could not be happier.

  3. If I were small enough I would crawl under mine and take naps, looking up at the flowers before closing my eyes.

    I suppose if I were that small, my cat would eat me.

  4. I have a shady garden and I’ve been looking for something to fill it with. These sound perfect! I’m definitely going to try and find some cheaper ones.
    Thanks for the tips Elizabeth!

  5. you do more for your hellebores than I do. I totally ignore them and they come back year after year, getting bigger each time and self seeding. I love a flower that starts to bloom as early as January (in the mountains of western NC), survives the snow, and continues well into spring. Despite having gotten all of them as transplants from my mother, I have variations in color from white to a fairly dark pink

  6. I planted two hellebores last year for the first time, never had any before, and this year added a couple more. I got mine from the big box home improvement store. The nurseries ask $20-$30 or more, as you said, but I think I paid something like $12.99 for each of mine. Two are white and two are mauve. I don’t know why I never had them before, but I do love them! Mine are doing well, and I’m looking forward to having them multiply over the years, both from self seeding and from purchasing more!

  7. My first hellebore, a “pink” one planted and ignored for a decade, has produced seedlings of all colors — white, cream/chartreuse, purples including one nice dark one with a white center, and quite a range of pinks, from pale to purply.

    Separating the colors into their own planting areas, I put the darkest ones at the edge of a patch of white-variegated ivy in hopes that will make the blooms more visible.

    Satisfying as these riches are from the small investment in one original plant, it’s easy to imagine that the wait for them would be an agony for many gardeners — it would have been for me if I’d paid any attention! So my advice is to go ahead and splurge on at least a couple of whatever hellebores you find most appealing. I’m pretty sure my favorite look — single whites with a picotee — isn’t going to appear among the seedlings here, so it’s still high on my wishlist of perennials.

  8. Also, they’re indestructible. The recent DC hail storm: tulips destroyed, hostas shredded, hellebores totally unbothered. While planting my first hellebores, I stepped on one (I wasn’t planting them in the cleverest order) twice, with all my weight, and it didn’t mind. They’re fantastic plants!

    • My shade garden is so acidic, what with the lurching hollies, that all hellebores eventually die, but I would love to see yours. Sorry about the tulips.

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