UPDATE (April 10, 2013): My plants have flower buds!
Are you afraid to grow hellebore? I am. Like clematis, they are a plant that I have long associated with hoity-toity gardeners and their fancy pants gardens. Their ticket price doesn’t help matters. Hellebores are notoriously expensive plants, often coming in at the $20-30 mark in most retail garden centres. That’s a lot of money to sink into a plant that I am almost certain I will kill.
And then I met Barry Parker.
Barry loves hellebores. He also loves clematis (but that’s a story for another day). And you know what? Barry’s garden is awfully fancy. Few fully staffed, public gardens I have visited have been able to pull off what Barry achieves in his urban Toronto backyard. While the initial shock has worn off, after 4 years, it still blows my mind every time that I visit it.
It may be fancy and a little bit intimidating, but I never walk away from Barry’s garden feeling like a failure in my own. I think this is owing to Barry’s heart of gold and his cheerful, encouraging, and generous charm. Instead, I always leave Barry’s garden with a can-do attitude and the drive to do better. Whats more, having Barry as a friend has helped me come a long way in undoing old, self-imposed stereotypes about gardeners, plants, and gardens.
Despite all of this, I am still afraid of the big, bad hellebore.
Last year, Barry gifted me a trio of three-year-old seedlings that he had potted up from his garden. I took the plants tentatively. While I appreciate his generosity (as I said, they are not cheap to buy), plant gifts from Barry do hold a self-imposed pressure to keep them alive! Up until that point I understood that hellebores are a Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) perennial that enjoy shade. I have an almost entirely full sun garden. But of course there is more to shade than just shade. There is dry shade. And moist shade. There is shade that changes with the seasons. There is the condition of the soil. And there are three fancy plants with a combined retail cost of approximately $90 in my care. Gah!
It is now early spring, and the hellebores that I inherited from Barry are beginning to appear from underneath a patch of snow and ice. They look fresh, green, and most importantly ALIVE, but the question remains: What in the heck do I do now? And so I decided to turn to my friend Barry, the Hellebore Whisper, for advice in hopes of better understanding the needs of a plant that I have come to wildly mythologize and consequently, misunderstand. What I’ve learned has been very helpful and maybe (just maybe), I might even get up the courage to purchase a fourth plant this spring!
An Interview with Barry Parker, Hellebore Lover
Q: If I’m ever going to tackle this fear, I need to get a clearer picture as to the conditions that hellebores prefer. Help!
Barry: Hellebores are enormously adaptable, in nature they come from the edges of woodland, and in scrubby land at usually high altitude regions of central Europe. I plant them close to or under small trees in my small city garden, which gives them sun in the spring and as the trees fill out they get partial shade in the summer. Coming from mountainous regions they can withstand winter temperatures well below 18C, and can be grown in areas as low as zone 4, possibly zone 3 with winter protection.
Q: As you know, I have a mostly sunny garden with a few spots that receive either late or early day shade. Which spot would be best for hellebores? I have mentioned to you that one of those spots is cold and stays cold later than other parts of my garden. Is this spot okay for hellebores or should I choose a location that warms up earlier?
Barry: In your zone 6 garden, some shade during the summer is, I think, advisable. Don’t worry about looking for a warm location, they will bid their time in the cold until the conditions are right and can take care of themselves in the meantime.
Q: What kind of care do my plants need in the early spring as they are coming out of dormancy? Should I prune away old foliage? Fertilize?
Barry: In early spring when temperatures are above 0C it is probably safe to remove all the old foliage. Try to do this before the flowers develop too much as you can easily damage them in the process of removing the leaves.
I fertilize in the Fall, using bonemeal, giving them a good feed early in the season as they come out of dormancy.
Q: You have a plant in your garden that has flowered mid-winter in your garden (January)? What variety is this? Do you do anything special to encourage early blooming? Is it vulnerable at this stage? Do you do anything to protect it?
Barry: This is Helleborus niger ‘Praecox’ a form of the species with very early flowers that bloom starting in November and continuing throughout the winter if mild enough. Often it will rebound after being hit with sub zero temps, when there is a warm winter day. Perhaps it would benefit from some protection to keep the flowers going. There are often some unopened buds in the Spring that can be persuaded to bloom indoors as a cut flower.
Q: After blooming care: Must I deadhead? Can I leave seed bearing varieties to produce seed and possibly seedlings?
Barry: The five petal-like sepals persist throughout the summer and are very ornamental, even though they lose much of their colour. So dead-heading is not a good idea. However they will produce huge amounts of seed and in a year or two you find all sorts of seedlings growing around (and sometimes in) the crown of the parent plant. At first I tried to save many of these seedlings, but with time I’ve learnt to just weed them out, otherwise I’d end up with a congested mono-planting. A few seedlings have grown on to become nice plants, but the majority are not so good. I have one plant that seeded itself right up to and in the roots of a dogwood and impossible to dig out, but fortunately it’s a nice looking plant, having inherited some nice colour from its parents.
Q: When is the best time to buy hellebores?
Barry: Don’t get me started on this question! Here in Southern Ontario we have this mindset that gardening doesn’t start until May. Many garden centres don’t open until then and all they have to order are Hellebores past their best, particularly if they have been forced in a greenhouse over the winter. If you are lucky enough to live in Europe or warmer parts of the U.S. and Canada, you’ll probably find nurseries that put on Hellebore events early in the year where you can buy plants in their prime and choose the colours and forms you like best.
Q: It’s very early spring. I’ve bought myself a new hellebore in a pot, but the soil in my garden is still very frozen. What do I do? Do I need to keep it somewhere cold or warm? How soon can I plant it outside?
Barry: If you buy a plant that is more advanced than it would be outside (i.e. a plant that has been forced for quick retailing) think of it as a plant that you are purchasing for next year, when it will have settled into the soil in your garden and will be at its very best. In the meantime, keep it in the pot outside and close to the house in a sheltered spot. Give it protection if the weather is still frigid (a cardboard box at night would be all you’d need) and when the soil has warmed up and is workable you can plant it where you choose.
Q: Can you suggest a few favorite varieties for beginners? A variety that you love personally?
There are so many to choose from — I love them all! There are the species (currently 17, but knowing botanists, that could change), primary hybrids or intersectional hybrids that are the hybrids of two species, and there are crazy mixed up hybrids whose lineages are impossible to untangle. These would be referred to as Helleborus hybridus.
The variety is endless, they come in a huge range of colours, some clear, others with spotting, striping, and bicolours. There has been a trend to using tissue culture to produce large quantities of identical plants from a chosen hybrid, and some of these plants are very nice (I certainly have some of these), but I prefer plants that are developed in seed strains that are similar, but not identical. It is more rewarding to know that in some respect ythe plant you selected is unique.
Finally I would say that all Hellebores are easy to grow, even for the beginner. Here are some of my favourites:
Helleborus hybridus (Dark pink with cream interior). Hellebores from named seed strains are generally called H. hybridus
Any of the species. Photo by Barry Parker.
H. niger ‘Praecox’
H. nigercors (a primary hybrid of niger and argutifolius). Photo by Barry Parker.
I particularly like cream and greenish flowers.
Still feeling intimidated by hellebore or just curious to learn more? Barry recommends the book, Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Coleston Burrell. I’ll give away one copy to a random winner.
All you have to do to enter is say something about hellebore in the comments. Have you grown them? Do you want to, but are afraid to try? What is your favourite variety/colour/colour combination? And of course, you can always just type in “count me in,” and that will count as an entry, too.
The winner will be drawn at random after entries close at midnight on Wednesday, April 3, and informed by email.
Disclosure: Please note that Amazon links earn me a small commission, which are put towards purchasing books as giveaway prizes. Please see my current Publication Policy for more info.