What could make a flower gardener’s heart beat faster than a perennial that blooms in earliest spring, loves the shade, tolerates dry conditions, and isn’t on the menu of deer or voles? The impossible dream? Not at all. Gardeners of the Hamptons, meet the hellebores.
Members of the genus Helleborus, hellebores are related to buttercups, which they resemble, have drooping, cup-shaped flowers, and are native to Europe and western Asia. They’ve been grown in gardens for a very long time. The best known species until fairly recently were the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), neither of which are related to true roses.
Today’s hybrid hellebores are dazzlers with splashy cup-shaped five-petaled blossoms or flat saucer-like petals in rich shades of pink, maroon, purple, chartreuse, gleaming pure white, and dramatic black. Those flowers are in reality a deep purple but they look absolutely black. Many hellebore flowers are speckled—some very heavily—with contrasting burgundy red while others have colored edges. On some the back side of the flower is colorful. The center of the flower may be a different color and the prominent anthers of darker-colored varieties are glowing cream. Some flowers are “double” with an extra ring of petals. Some flowers face upward and others nod toward the ground, showing the color on the backs of their petals. Most of these garden hybrids are crosses of the Lenten rose and other species. Botanists have given them their own species name, Helleborus x hybridus.
Hellebores are real showstoppers with abundant flowers. A mature plant can produce 50 flowers at a time often hanging around for two months. Actually, the “petals” of hellebore blossoms are modified calyxes, which is why they last so long. What produces these glorious flowers? Hellebore plants form clumps of stems 1 ½ to 2 feet high and 2 to 2 ½ feet across. The leathery evergreen leaves are divided into seven or more segments arranged around a central point like spokes of an umbrella. The plants add great texture to the garden when the flowers finish blooming.
How To Grow Them
The real key to success with hellebores is to plant them in well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. When you prepare the soil in a bed, dig in plenty of compost or composted manure as deep as your shovel blade as hellebores send roots deep into the ground. If you compost the leaves that fall from your trees in autumn, use that material, too.
The perfect spot for hellebores is under a tree yet they grow well in partial to full shade. Hellebores will not tolerate wet feet, though in a moister soil they can take more sun. They can, however, handle dry locations, and once established they’ll need only an occasional watering. In the parts of the world where they’re native, hellebores grow in soil that’s neutral to mildly alkaline. But they’ll generally adapt to mildly acidic conditions in gardens if necessary.
Once a year you may remove last season’s old leaves, though it’s not absolutely necessary. The best time for removing old leaves is just before the flowers bloom. The old leaves protect the developing flower buds. If you remove them too soon the buds could open early and risk damage from a late freeze.
How To Use Them
Hellebores will jump-start your perennial garden in early spring. They’re lovely additions to shady gardens all year long. If you fall in love with them, think about planting a mass of different varieties under a tree. An even more ideal location would be a shady slope, where rainwater can drain away freely.
Where To Get Them
Because hellebores bloom before gardening season really gets under way in the Hamptons, not all garden centers and nurseries stock them. You can shop for hellebores online at Sunshine Farm and Gardens (www. sunfarm.com), White Flower Farm (www.whiteflowerfarm.com) and Plant Delights Nursery (www.plantdelights.com). Many local nurseries carry them, too, including Lynch’s in Southampton, Marders in Bridgehampton and Jos. A Hren in East Hampton.