Long Live Hellebores
Hellebores are beloved for their long lives and the early spring blooms they bring to a shade garden. But, did you know these perennial plants also have a fascinating history?
As we were restocking our tables of hellebores yesterday, Jared who always loves a good plant story surprised us with a couple hellebore tales. “Did you know hellebores were an early chemical warfare tactic?” he challenged and went on to share how the Greeks invaded the city of Kirrha and poisoned the city’s water supply with hellebore root powder to sicken the defending army.
In other tales, poor Alexander the Great was poisoned by his assistants who snuck powdered hellebore root into his drink, and Herbalist Melampus of Greek mythology used powdered hellebore root to cure the King of Arogos’s daughters of a divinely inflicted madness. As the legend goes, Melampus found the girls running naked through the forests, gave them milk from goats that had grazed on hellebore plants, and ended up curing them.
Truth be told, the plants are toxic and thankfully deer-proof for that sake. The name derives from the Greek words helein meaning “to harm” and bora meaning “food,” referring to the plant’s toxic leaves, stems and roots. Many refer to hellebores as “Lenten Roses” for their rose-like flowers that appear in early spring during the Christian season of Lent. The beloved blooms really are sepals that protect the true flowers and last well past the blooms. Early pollinators especially appreciate the early blooms. Another bonus is hellebore’s evergreen foliage that makes an attractive groundcover.
Hellebores are easy to grow and last for years. Just stop by Aullwood Garden in Dayton, Ohio to see the hellebores planted on the hillsides by the late conservationist Marie Aull in the early 1900s. These perennials perform best under shade trees in rich, moist, yet well-draining soil. When planting, remove plants from the container, shake off potting mix and loosen any bound roots. Take care to plant so the hellebore’s crown is even with the soil. Water thoroughly after planting and keep consistently moist until established. Try planting hellebores with companions like snowdrops, crocus, grape hyacinth, daffodils, phlox, trillium and bleeding heart.
In winter, add a thick layer of compost around the hellebores as an amendment. When new growth begins to emerge, trim away old, tattered leaves to maximize the floral show. Watch for seedlings to sprout up around the base of parent plants. The seedlings can be thinned, transplanted, and will typically bloom in their third year. Once established, hellebores can be fussy about being dug up and moved, it’s best to just leave them be.
It’s fun to cut hellebore blooms to enjoy indoors. Simply float the blooms in water or cut stems of more mature or “ripe” blooms to enjoy in a vase. With the interior flower parts gone, ripe blooms tend to last longer as cut flowers.
Hellebores are a member of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family, and the genus includes more than 20 species native to Europe and Asia. A long-time favorite is Helleborus niger or “Christmas Rose” that blooms in December and features shiny, dark green foliage. Many of today’s hybrids are crosses with Helleborus orientalis. The most exciting trends include unusual colors (from amber to almost black), increased plant heights, outward-facing blooms, and more exotic patterns of speckling, veining, and picotee edges.
At Groovy Plants Ranch, we offer ‘Ivory Prince’ with ivory blossoms fading to rose and chartreuse plus attractive dark green foliage with silver veining. The Wedding Party series features double-flowered hellebores including ‘True Love’ in maroon red, ‘Confetti Cake’ in white with pink speckles, ‘First Dance’ in yellow with maroon accents, ‘Dark and Handsome’ in black purple and ‘Maid of Honor’ in pink. The single-flowering Honeymoon series includes ‘Vegas Night’ in gray and deep purple, ‘French Kiss’ in white with pink veining, ‘Paris in Pink’ in pink, ‘Rome in Red’ in wine, ‘Spanish Flare’ in pale yellow with burgundy center and ‘Romantic Getaway’ in white with red center.