March has many different weather personalities in the New Jersey Garden. From frigid cold to whipping winds, to driving rains, these months test the winter tolerance and hardiness of both plants and plantsmen alike. So, when the hale and hardy Hellebores begin to bloom despite these difficult conditions and frequently frozen earth, we all delight in the prospect that spring weather cannot be far behind!
WHO ARE THE HELLEBORES?
Commonly referred to as Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) or Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger), hellebores are native mostly to Europe. These evergreen hardy plants bloom anywhere from Mid-February to Late March in New Jersey, depending on location and winter severity. The flowers are long-lived and can last easily into early May.
They are members of the Ranunculaecae, or Buttercup Family. This is a very popular gardening family and includes such garden greats as Peony, Trollius, Clematis, and Thalictrum. Hellebore’s early bloom time makes them well-suited to grouping with early spring bulbs such as Galanthus (Snowdrops), Crocus sp. And Narcissus (Daffodil).
Hellebores can be grown in most parts of the United States. They prefer full to partial shade, and moist, rich soil. They are tolerant of heavy soils, but not of wet soils. Soil pH range should be between 5.5 and 7.0. Hellebores respond to nutrients in the soil and so, should be fertilized on a regular basis. The course evergreen foliage is a popular ornamental attribute of Hellebores and they add good winter contrast because of this. Their distinct palmate leaf contrasts well with hostas, ferns and astilbes. Mulching the plants for winter helps facilitate earlier bloom time. Shredded hardwood mulch is a fine material for this use.
There are few diseases and pests that bother Hellebores. Occasionally, they are attacked by Botrytis fungus or Aphids, but these infestations are few and far between. The Botrytis is easily treated with a copper-based fungicide and the Aphids with a contact or systemic insecticide.
Use Hellebores in the foreground of perennial beds and where they can be seen from the house in winter. The flowers are a welcome sight during the dreary late winter. Flowers range from dark purplish-pink to mauve, and even are available in creams, whites and chartreuse. The large, colorful flowers tend to droop down on a forty five degree angle. First, because they are heavy, but in terms of evolution, this was a survival mechanism. This way, the reproductive parts of the plant are protected from snow and ice that often occur unexpectedly at this time of the year. Hellebores are completely deer resistant and this makes them a welcome addition in today’s deer browsed environments.
Cut Hellebore flowers anytime during the flowering cycle, leaving about an inch of stem. To increase the longevity of the cut flowers, dip the ends of the stems in boiling water before putting them in the display vessel. They look absolutely fabulous floating in a shallow bowl with floating tea lights.
Keep your eyes open and look for the Hardy Hellebores, harbingers of spring! You will not be disappointed!