This is one of my all-time favorite flowers for shade gardens. They’re early to bloom and do so for a long time. Plus they’re tougher than nails and what’s not to like?
You’ll find them in garden centers and catalogs under these names: Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose, Melampode, Hellebore.
It really doesn’t matter what you call them – you just want to grow them in your garden.
Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about this great plant.
Christmas Rose is an easily understood common name for this plant due to its ability to be one of the earliest flowering of perennial plants. In the mildest of climates, it can indeed be in flower by Christmas time.
It is said that the Greeks gave us hellebore from elein ‘to injure’ and bora or ‘food’ which clearly indicates the poisonous nature of this plant. Pliny wrote that Melampus a physician living some time around 1400 B.C. used the plant as a purgative giving it the common name Melampode in the process.
- Sun needed: Shade to part shade
- Bloom color: Full range – from green to bi-colors, reds, blues, whites
- Bloom time: Very early spring
- Height 18” to 24”
- Planting space apart: 18 to 24 inches
- Propagation method: Seed is best. See notes below on cultural details for issues with division.
- Hardiness: USDA 3/4
- LIfespan: greater than 5 years
- Soil preferred: Well-drained but humus rich
- Potential disease problems: see below
- Potential insect problems: none serious but see reader comments re aphids
- Use: Early spring bloomer for the shade to semi-shade garden, cut flower
Some person wrote that this plant grew well in dry shade and this mantra has been picked up by many gardeners who have never grown this plant. In my experience it might survive in dry shade once it is established there but it will never thrive in dry shade nor flower as profusely as when grown in conditions it prefers.
Where To Grow
And, what it prefers is shade or part shade as well as evenly moist soils. Grow this plant as a woodlander or woodland edger and ensure it has constant moisture (a mulch helps here) and you’ll get all the blossoms you could want. If you insist on growing it in dry shade, ensure that the organic matter of your soil is quite high (organic matter holds moisture) and the plant will do better.
Do not bother to torture the plant by growing it in dry sandy soils under evergreens or out in the full hot sunshine. Its demise will be painful for you both.
It also has a reputation as being hard to propagate from seeds. Nothing could be further from the truth as long as the seed is fresh. If the seed is dried out and dormant – well yes, it can be difficult.
It Self Sows
What you’ll find if you grow this plant as a woodland edger is that it will self sow to provide you with all kinds of young plants to share with friends and spread around your garden. Look around the base of plants in the early summer and gently transplant the new seedlings.
While new seedlings move easily, the established plants sulk quite badly for several years (or worse, they simply die) until they will flower again when moved.
Similarly, you can theoretically divide this plant but you take the chance of losing it when you do. It is much easier to pick small seedlings than divide or move the mature specimen. I note H. foetidus will simply not divide but rather die in your attempt.
This plant is usually a heavy feeder so a yearly application of compost is necessary (apply in the fall) if you want to maintain its heavy blossoming.
In warmer climates than mine, the evergreen foliage is quite striking over the entire year. It is glossy-green and makes an excellent accent in an otherwise drab season. In our zone 4 garden, the evergreen forms look very tattered after Old Man Winter gets finished with them.
I simply cut mine to the ground in late fall or very-early spring so the flowers will show nicely instead of being hidden by tatty-foliage.
It is hard to keep up with breeder introductions (just as it is hard with Echinacea) but when shopping – only buy plants in bloom as there is so much variability in this seed-produced plant.
- Helleborus argutifolius is a pale green flowering form grown mostly by collectors. There are two varieties ‘Pacific Frost’ and ‘Pacific Mist’ available in Europe but I have not seen them in North American sources yet. The species is not something you will write home about. I’ve grown it but discarded it as not particularly attractive.
- Helleborus foetidus the Stinking Hellebore (now there’s a name that is guaranteed to sell a plant) is another green flowering form although it does have some red streaking at its base. Another collector’s plant that is not worth garden space unless you are a plant collector and then you’ll have to have it.
- Helleborus niger or the Christmas Rose is one of the classics (along with the following H. orientalis varieties) that the breeders have used extensively. There are at least four major color hybrid families: Blackthorn Group, Harvington Hybrids, Sunrise Group and the Sunset Group, available to consumers. There are a wide assortment of plant sizes (including dwarfs) as well as flower colors. It is hard to go wrong with this family.
- Helleborus orientalis is the Lenten Rose and the most hybridized member of the family. There are simply more orientalis hybrids on the market than any other family and they come in a dazzling array of colors ranging from blues through yellows and pinks along with picotee bi-colored blooms. This plant crosses easily with almost every other member of the family and it will do so in your garden as well. Seedlings show great variation in color. I’ve seldom met a Helleborus orientalis I didn’t like.
- Helleborus x sternii are another of the hybrids you’ll often see in seed catalogs. Although they are reputed to be tender, I have several in my garden and the only reason they will likely leave is not their tenderness but their lack of showy flowers. This is another of the green flowering forms or green flowering with flushes of rose in the petals. As you might tell, as a gardener I am not all that enthusiastic about green flowers in my garden.
Potions and Poisons
This is a poisonous plant. This family of plants has high alkaloid levels in the roots and these are not to be eaten. It has been used in the past for medicinal purposes both on humans and animals and has even been used to ward off evil spirits when the powdered root is scattered or spread over animals.
One old herbal recommended that if the animal had a cough that a bit of hellebore root be passed through a hole cut in the ear of the animal to remedy the cough.
While its poisonous – as well as a few positive – effects have been noted in most of the old herbals as well as the more modern ones, it is not recommended for general use.
New Disease of Hellebore: Hellebore Black Death
I just read about this problem with Hellebore and I’ve added it to the plant profile. I do not have any pictures of this problem.
- The issue is commonly referred to as “Hellebore Black Death.” The virus behind hellebore black death is hellebore net necrosis virus (HeNNV).
- It is spread by aphids (see comments for aphid issues)
- HeNNV is a new species of virus in the Carlavirus family and is believed to be vectored by aphids
- Infected plants become stunted, deformed and marked by black streaks, netting and ring patterns on the foliage.
- Symptoms on the flowers appear as black or brown veins and the stems may develop black streaks too. Thus the common name “Black Death.”
- Look for symptoms on newly emerging foliage as well as flowers of older, well-established plants.
- Some plants will have poor health over several seasons, while others die within weeks of you seeing symptoms. But they all die eventually and there’s nothing you can do except dig out the infected ones and hope the others in garden don’t get it.
- There are no methods of controlling or removing the virus. The best thing to do is manage aphid populations.