I will bet that you, just like me, would like to walk out your door on the first day of spring and be greeted by the blooms of crocus, daffodils and Hellebores, one of our earliest flowering perennials. Oh wait….didn’t this already happen in late February during that spell when temperatures hit 65F?
Winter, which hasn’t been paying attention to the calendar here in the Northeast, has decided to chill us out in March. Day after day temperatures have flirted with 32F, (nights have registered in the single digits) and that proverbial north wind has provided a relentless bone chill. As I write, a nor’easter is bearing down with snow and freezing rain and more wind…it just doesn’t seem realistic to expect that spring could happen in one week. And judging by the flurry of emails in my inbox, many gardeners are concerned with what may happen to their precocious Hellebore blossoms.
Worry not. Hellebores are tough perennials. Hellebores will persevere… provided their cultural needs have been met. For review, Hellebores need well drained soil. Their roots do not want to be constantly wet. Hellebores adapt to soil types, although if soil is quite acidic I would recommend amending with garden lime. Hellebores are slow growing at first and shy of flowering the first or second year in the garden, but they are extremely long lived. Although they are tolerant of shade, they will bloom more profusely if they receive 4-6 hours of sunlight.
Hellebores fall into 2 groups: caulescant and acaulescant. Caulescant types include Helleborus foetidus and argutifolius, and set flowers on last years stems which persist all winter. Obviously you would not want to cut back this group until after flowering or you would sacrifice the display.
Acaulescant types include H. niger (Christmas Rose) and hybrids of H. orientalis (Lenten Rose). Most of the cultivars available to the home gardener are in the acaulescant group. Note: It is important to remove the old decaying foliage as the new growth appears in late winter and early spring. This older foliage can harbor fungal diseases which can cause crown rot, and affect the blossoms.
Other tips: Hellebore species can naturalize by self sowing. Many (but not all) Helleborus hybrids do set seed and self sow, but the seedlings may differ strikingly from the nearby parent. Seedlings usually appear the following spring after a winter cold period breaks dormancy of the seed coat. Expect their growth to be slow this first year.
If you are interested in encouraging colonies of self sowing Hellebores that are particularly lovely, I recommend the Brandywine Strain, selected by David Culp. Brandywine’s progeny develop lovely variations with outward facing flowers.