Hellebores are Winter Heart-warmers

helleOne of the splendid benefits about living and gardening in my neighborhood is the number of beautiful, mature trees that provide a shady refuge for my favorite plant- the Hellebore.  December is the perfect time to celebrate the uncommon majesty of the winter-blooming, and heart-warming, hellebore plant.

The species Helleborus Niger is commonly known as the Christmas Rose due to its peculiar habit of being in full bloom with beautiful white flowers during the winter months. Other names for the helleborus niger include the winter rose, snow rose, Christ herb and melampode. Each of the various names carries a lovely story that includes a lonely sojourner shedding tears for the Christ-child which turn to white flower petals when they drop to the ground.

In my own garden, I have the HGC (Hellebore Gold Collection) variety called ‘Jacob’.  Amazingly, this plant begins to produce winter-white buds just before the snow flies and continues to bloom for several months.  In addition to being deer-resistant, something that all of my midwest gardening friends want and need, hellebores are quite the winter thrillers with the stark contrast of white flowers nestled against green foliage surrounded by shimmering white snow.

Hellebores are not roses at all.  They are herbaceous perennials, meaning that they are planted once and grow back each growing season; unlike annuals which have to be planted year after year.  The plant itself is stemless, that is, the leaf and flower stems grow directly from the root of the plant, just below the ground. These interesting perennials have large palmate leaves that are evergreen.  The dark leaves remain green all winter long and are a beautiful sight when looking out the window during a snowy morning’s contemplative retreat.

Hellebores are part of the ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family.  A plant can live for 20 years and grow up to two-feet wide.  Their large four-inch flowers are a creamy white, although can turn to a shade of rose or lilac as the bud ages.   Originally found in southern France and Europe, the hellebore was used for medicinal purposes hundreds of years ago.  The hellebore found its way to the United States in the 1700’s.  It was not until after World War I that the hellebore began to enjoy some status as a desirable plant for the winter landscape.

Thriving in the shady garden bed, the hellebore loves company.  Hosta, tiarella (foam flower), ferns, and campanula (bell flower) all make wonderful companion plants and also thrive in the partial shade of the garden.

The Christmas Rose, H. niger, are easy-care plants.  They love shady spots that provide a bit of morning sun.  In my garden I have found that they do best with a little natural protection from the winter wind, such as at the bottom or the side of a hill.  I give each of my hellebores a small dose of granulated slow-release plant food once a year and they reward me with beautiful, long-lasting blooms.

When purchasing hellebore plants for your own garden,  be sure to ask about the percentage of first year bloom the particular variety will yield.  You want to obtain good quality plants with a high percentage of first year bloom from a reputable local or on-line nursery that specializes in hellebores.

Want to see the beautiful blooms of the helleborus niger up close this winter? Many Botanical Gardens pair  the stunning helleborus niger ‘Jacob’ with beautiful blooming amaryllis bulbs for a winter garden show you won’t soon forget.


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