The common name hellebore is assigned to several species of plants in the Helleborus genus of the Ranunculaceae family, which also includes monkshood, delphinium, and anemone. Hellebore foliage is thick, evergreen, and forms a low lying clump with leaves that are lobed and palm-like. Hellebores are among the earliest perennial flowers to bloom, welcoming spring with their rose-like blossoms. In warm locales, Helleborus orientalis (commonly called Lenten rose) can bloom outdoors at Christmastime. In colder zones, hellebores will break through the frozen ground early in the spring. Their foliage remains attractive into the summer, so they are suitable for splashy, mass plantings. Be aware that Helleborus niger (commonly called the Christmas rose) and Helleborus orientalis are toxic.
|Botanical Name||Helleborus spp.|
|Common Name||Hellebore, Lenten rose, Christmas rose|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||1–2 ft. tall with a similar spread|
|Sun Exposure||Shade in summer and sun in winter|
|Soil Type||Moist but well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral, alkaline|
|Flower Color||White, pink, purple, yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9|
|Native Area||Middle East|
|Toxicity||Toxic to dogs and cats|
Hellebores are usually planted from potted nursery specimens, even when purchased from online retailers. Hellebore seeds are available, but they are sold in seed packets that include a mix of colors. If you want a particular variety, you will need to purchase potted nursery starts because they have either been selected or hybridized for specific colors.
Hellebores are very easy to grow in shady conditions where most plants struggle, provided they have some shelter from harsh winter winds and receive sunlight in the winter. The only real maintenance the plants require is a little cleanup of the dried leaves. If foliage is winter-worn, it can be cut back to basal growth in the late winter to early spring before flowering.
Hellebores prefer partial to full shade during the summer months but require more sunlight in winter. An ideal planting location is underneath a deciduous tree where they are shaded by foliage in summer but are exposed to full sun after the tree drops its leaves in the fall.
Hellebores grow best in soil that is well-draining and rich with organic matter. If your soil is acidic, consider adding lime, as hellebores prefer neutral or even alkaline conditions. Before amending soil, make sure to do a soil test to determine soil pH levels and nutrient availability.
Although they like some moisture, hellebores should not be allowed to sit in wet soil for a prolonged time or they will rot. Once established, they can handle drier soil.
Temperature and Humidity
Hardiness will vary with species, but you can find hellebore suitable for USDA cold hardiness zones 3 to 9—most are hardy as far north as zone 4 or 5. In colder climates, protect hellebores from harsh winter winds. Hellebores tolerate a wide range of humidity.
Add an organic-rich fertilizer—compost or well-decayed manure—to the soil when planting, then continue to apply a layer in spring and early fall. Additional fertilizer is rarely needed if the soil is rich enough.
Types of Hellebore
Hellebore is not to be confused with false hellebore (Veratrum viride). There are many wonderful hellebore varieties, often sold in a mix of colors. More and more hybrids are being offered in single colors. Here are some favorites:
- 'Anna's Red': This plant has rich red-purple blooms and leaves that are veined with pink. It is suitable for zones 4 to 9.
- Winter Jewels™ 'Amber Gem': Unique golden blossoms are edged with pink. Grow this plant in zones 5 to 8.
- 'Phillip Ballard': This variety has dark blue, almost black flowers. It can be grown in zones 6 to 9.
- 'Citron': This plant has unusual primrose yellow blooms and is suitable for zones 6 to 9.
- 'Angel Glow': The cultivar has pale pink flowers that fade to green as they age. Grow it in zones 6 to 8.
- 'Wester Flisk': These plants have a red tinge to the stems and leaf stalks. Flowers are greenish, edged with red and purple. It is suitable for USDA zones 6 to 9.
The best time to prune hellebores is in late winter or early spring when new growth begins to appear on your plant. The new growth should come up between the older stems and leaves. When it does, cut away tattered, old growth with sharp pruning shears. Cut the old growth as close to the base as possible.
Hellebores can be propagated by division. The best time to divide is in late winter 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.)
Most varieties will reseed and form colonies of plants, but hybrids can produce seeds that don't resemble the parent plant. Seeds can produce plants that resemble one of the parent species, not the hybrid. You can move the seedlings to another location in the garden once they are large enough to handle and have developed true leaves.
Growing Hellebore From Seeds
Hellebore seeds don't remain viable very long so always start with fresh seed. Fresh seeds 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 collect seeds from the pods on growing plants, they should be planted right away— they will germinate with minimal effort. However, if they sit too long outside of the soil, they develop a hard coating and go dormant. It can take a year or more for them to complete this dormancy cycle.
First, soak the seeds in hot water until they start to swell. This can take a day or two. Then, sow them in a pot filled with potting mix and keep the pots at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit for six weeks. Finally, move the pots to a cooler spot, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You should see germination and sprouting within another four to six weeks.
Hellebores are winter-hardy and require little attention to make it through the harsh winter months. They will usually bounce right back at the first sign of spring.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Hellebores are not bothered by many insects, except for aphids. Affected parts can be removed, then sprayed with horticultural oil or another pesticide.
The common diseases are usually fungal in origin: leaf spot and downy mildew, both of which can be treated with fungicides if the infection is severe.
One quite serious disease carries the ominous name Black Death. This causes stunted plants and black streaks. It is caused by the Helleborus net necrosis virus, which is transmitted by aphids. If a plant is affected, your only recourse is to remove the plant entirely. Treat for aphids to prevent the spread of this disease.
How to Get Hellebore to Bloom
Hellebores can be planted in the spring or fall. Some species are slow to develop and might require two seasons before they bloom. Blooming might also be delayed if the young plant had been forced into bloom too early. Bloom time depends on both the species and your climate. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) can bloom in December in zone 7 or warmer but rarely blooms until spring in colder climates. Most species can be counted on to bloom somewhere between December and April and stay in bloom for a month or longer. Ensure the hellebore doesn't receive too much nitrogen as this will result in lovely foliage but a severe shortage of blooms.
What plants are similar to hellebore?
Hellebores used to be the domain of specialty plant collectors, but recent hybridizing has introduced several varieties that are easy to grow and are readily available in garden centers. The three most familiar species are H. orientalis (often called Lenten rose), H.niger (commonly known as Christmas rose or black rose), and Helleborus foetidus (commonly known as stinking hellebore). Varieties labeled as Helleborus x hybridus are generally hybrids that have H. orientalis as the principal parent.
Can hellebore grow indoors?
This is a plant that is sometimes sold for the winter season, much like poinsettias, then allowed to die off after the lush blooms have done their part. However, you can continue to care for the plant indoors until the spring thaw, when it should readily moved to a permanent home in the garden where it receives shade in the summer and sunlight in winter.
How fast do hellebores grow?
Hellebores are considered slow-growing plants that can take up to 18 months to reach their mature size of about 12 inches tall by 24 inches wide. Those that are grown from seed can take about three years to reach that point.
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“Hellebore (Helleborus)-Aphid.” Pacific Northwest Pest Management Handbooks, 11 Apr. 2017, http://pnwhandbooks.dev.extension.oregonstate.edu/insect/hort/landscape/hosts-pests-landscape-plants/hellebore-helleborus-aphid
“Helleborus-Black Death.” Pacific Northwest Pest Management Handbooks, http://pnwhandbooks.stage.extension.oregonstate.edu/node/2863/print
Dillion, Debbie, and Elisabeth Purser. “Hellebores.” Ncsu.Edu, 13 Dec. 2021, https://union.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/12/hellebores-an-easy-care-evergreen-ground-cover/