It’s a Marathon
Since moving south a dozen years ago, the thing that I am still amazed by, as a gardener, is the length of spring. Growing up at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, and spending early adulthood near the headwaters of the Mississippi and Lake Superior, lets just say that I was accustomed to a greater distinction between Winter and Spring. January weather in mid-Georgia is more like March in eastern West Virginia or May in northern Wisconsin, so I find myself gardening all year round with the plants themselves being the seasonal indicator as much as the weather. And so winter blooms come in abundance from an amazing variety of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs.
My current favorite winter blooming perennial is helleborus, or Lenten rose (or Christmas rose, depending on when your particular strain is in bloom). I was given this hellebore a few years ago, and I’m not completely sure which selection it is (although I’m pretty sure it’s one of the “Gold” series). It has radically changed our winter bloom season! This rugged, shade-loving, evergreen perennial consistently graces us with the first blooms of the new year, usually in January. What’s more, these flowers persist well into, and sometimes all the way through, spring. They begin as pictured above and mature to a mild shade of chartreuse by mid-April. This form is a great improvement over Helleborus orientalis for bloom season, spot free foliage throughout the year, and flowers that stand up on the stem rather than nodding. This last part is awesome because you can walk by and see the flowers’ faces, unlike the older varieties which were a bit more hidden.
How to care for Hellebores
Hellebores are wonderful naturalizers. I’ve seen plantings where they have been allowed to reproduce at will, and over time have taken over shaded back yards. That’s not to say hellebores are invasive; those examples have all been forty or fifty-year-old homes. This tells me, though, that they are extremely resilient plants that adapt well to their surroundings after first becoming well established. Helleborus orientalis is prolific from seed, if you plant a hybrid it may be less productive or it may not produce identical offspring. I have planted hellebores in the edges of natural areas with minimal care and 100% success so far. Dappled sunlight or direct morning sun with afternoon shade work well in our area. The soil should be well drained and supplemental water may be needed for the first season to get it established. Mine are paired with hydrangeas for a nice effect. At my mother-in-law’s house, I mixed them with autumn ferns and hostas under the canopy of a native white dogwood (Cornus florida) to provide a bit of year-round interest.
Hellebores (Helleborus orientalis, Helleborus nigra, Helleborus x) are hardy in zones 4-8. There are lots of specific and inter specific varieties to choose from, providing variations in bloom time (anywhere from December to April for the first buds to open), color (white to pink, purple and nearly black, some with patterns, others with double blooms), foliage qualities and size. This genera could easily become the object of your next garden obsession. They are extremely deer and rabbit resistant too! Because the blooms are close to the ground in the colder months, plant them along walkways or other high usage areas to make sure you are able to enjoy them in flower. Happy gardening!