Growing Hellebores in the Garden

Hellebore (Helleborus orientalis)
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Hellebore plants have rose-like blossoms that are among the earliest flowers to bloom. In Zones 7, Hellebore orientalis can bloom outdoors at Christmas Time. In colder zones, Hellebores will break through the frozen ground, early in the spring.

Hellebores used to be the domain of plant collectors. Recent hybridizing has introduced several easy growing, readily available, and much less expensive varieties.

  • Foliage: Leaves are lobed and often pedate.
  • Flowers: The flowers resemble roses, in shape. Long blooming, mostly in creamy shades of white, tinged with green and/or pink, the colors tend to change or deepen as they age. There is a lot of hybridizing going on and more colors are becoming available. Flower stems shoot up above the foliage but nod under the weight of the flowers, which tend to bloom face down.

Botanical Name

Hellebore sp. and hybrids

Common Names

Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)
Christmas Rose (Helleborus nigra))
Green Hellebore (Helleborus viridis))
Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus, H. orientalis)
Stinking Rose (Helleborus foetidus)

Hardiness Zones

Hardiness will vary with species, but most Hellebores are rated USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 9.

Mature Plant Size

Hellebore foliage forms a low clump, but when the plants are in bloom, they reach a height of about 1 ½ - 2 ft. and spread 1 - 1 ½ ft. wide

Sun Exposure

These are shade garden plants. Hellebores prefer partial to full shade. They can handle spring sun, but plant them in a spot that will become shadier as trees and other plants flush out.

Bloom Period

Blooming depends on both the species and your climate. The Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) can bloom in December in Zones 7 or warmer but rarely blooms until spring in colder climates. Most species can be counted on to bloom somewhere between December to April and will stay in bloom for a month or longer.

Hellebore Growing Tips

Soil: All Hellebores are shade garden plants, preferring partial shade and a rich, moist soil, high in organic matter. Although they like some moisture, don't let them sit in wet soil for prolonged periods of time or they will rot. Once established, they can handle drier soil.

Planting: Hellebore seed is available, but it will be a mix of colors. If you want a particular variety, you will need to purchase plants because they have either been selected or probably hybridized.

Most varieties will reseed, but if they are hybrids, you never know what you will get. You can move the seedlings to another location in the garden, once they are large enough to handle and have developed true leaves.

If you want to make it even easier on you and the transplants, collect the seed pods and let them fully ripen and dry. When they split open in early summer, scatter the seeds where you want them to grow. Or start them in pots and plant them out when they are large enough to move.

Hellebore seeds don't remain viable very long. Always start with fresh seed. Fresh seed can be planted in containers and left outdoors throughout the summer. Keep the soil moist and you should see germination in either the fall or the following spring.

If you sow them as soon as they drop from the pods, they will germinate with minimal effort. However, if they sit too long outside of soil, they develop a hard coating and go dormant. It can take a year or more for them to complete their dormancy cycle.

Stored Hellebore seeds need to be stratified, before planting. They will do this naturally outdoors, but if you want to start seeds indoors, it will take some finesse. These directions may yield variable results, depending on the quality of the seeds. You may need to adjust the time you chill them.

  1. First, soak the seeds in hot water, until they start to swell. This can take a day or two.
  2. Sow them and keep the pots at about 70 degrees F, for 6 weeks.
  3. Then move them to a cooler spot, at about 50 degrees F. You should see germination within another 4 - 6 weeks.

Caring for Your Hellebore Plants

The only real maintenance the plants require is a little cleaning up of their fading leaves. If foliage is winter worn, it can be cut back to basal growth in the spring, before flowering.

Hellebores don't really require division, but it won't hurt them to be divided if you want to make more plants. The best time to divide is in early spring before they flower. It is easiest to dig the entire plant and shake or wash off the soil, so you can see where the buds are on the crown. Make sure each division has at least 2 buds. (Helleborus foetidus and Helleborus argutifolius do not divide well and are best started from seed.)

Pests and Problems of Hellebores

They are generally pest free but watch for slugs and aphids.

Using Hellebores in Your Garden Design

Hellebores are one of the first perennials to bloom in the spring and their foliage will remain attractive into the summer, so they are suitable for splashy, mass plantings. They also complement foundation plantings and are ideal for woodland gardens.

Suggested Hellebore Varieties

There are many wonderful hellebore varieties, often sold in a mix of colors. More and more hybrids are being offered in single colors. These three are perennial favorites.

Helleborus foetidus "Wester Flisk": Red tinge to stems and leaf stalks (1 ½ ', zones 6-9)
Helleborus x hybridus "Phillip Ballard": Dark blue, almost black flowers. (1 ½ ', zones 6-9)
Helleborus. x hybridus "Citron": Unusual primrose yellow blooms (1 ½ ', zones 6-9)