Hellebore Plant Profile

Hellebore (Helleborus orientalis)
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Hellebore plants are among the earliest perennial flowers to bloom, welcoming spring with their rose-like blossoms. In warm locales, Helleborus orientalis 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. They also complement foundation plantings and are ideal for woodland gardens.

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

Hellebore foliage forms a low clump with leaves that are lobed and often pedate. The flowers resemble roses in shape. Long blooming, mostly in creamy shades of white, tinged with green or pink, the colors tend to change or deepen as they age. With hybridizing, 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 Helleborus
Common Name Hellebore
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 1–1.5 feet tall with 11.5 feet spread
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type Rich, moist soil
Soil pH Neutral or alkaline
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White, pink, purple
Hardiness Zones 4–9
Native Area Caucasus, Turkey

How to Grow Hellebores

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 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.

Blooming 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.

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

Light

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.

Soil

Hellebores grow best in soil that is rich with organic matter and well-draining. If your soil is acidic, consider adding lime, as hellebores prefer neutral or even acidic conditions.

Water

Although they like some moisture, don't let hellebores sit in wet soil for prolonged periods of time or they will rot. Once established, they can handle drier soil.

Temperature and Humidity

Hardiness will vary with species, but most Hellebores are rated USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9. In colder climates, protect hellebores from harsh winter winds.

Fertilizer

Add an organic-rich fertilizer into the soil when planting, then continue to fertilize in spring and early fall.

Propagating Hellebores

Hellebores can be propagated by division. 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.)

Growing From Seeds

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 will 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 for six weeks.
  3. Move them to a cooler spot, around 50 degrees. You should see germination within another four to six weeks.

Varieties of Hellebore

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 (Zones 6-9)
  • Helleborus x hybridus "Phillip Ballard": Dark blue, almost black flowers (Zones 6-9)
  • Helleborus. x hybridus "Citron": Unusual primrose yellow blooms (Zones 6-9)