Weather Resistant Hellebores

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Helleborus ‘Brandywine’ pausing for warmer days

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.

Caulescant type Helleborus foetidus

Acaulescant type Heleborus foetidus

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.

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Acauslescant Helleborus hybridus with emerging flowers and foliage. Cut back all the old leaves to prevent fungal diseases from taking hold.

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.

2 thoughts on “Weather Resistant Hellebores”

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I have added late winter bloomers in the last few years, and weather depending they get hammered. I was very relieved to hear that my hellebore’s (all flowering) may make it though the 2 ft of snow ( we hope). They give 2 months of delight.
    (small) Irises, even species tulip can take a hit in my zone 6 upstate NY garden. My quince budded and froze last year. I just learned that 24 degrees will kill almost all the cherry blossoms in DC, while 27 will only get to 10%. So maybe one should also plant the early bulbs where they emerge latest in the garden? As I have had them at the base of the sunniest south wall, to try and get the earliest blooms

  2. Ruhi, How hungry we are for color and fragrance in late winter….and then we discover wonderful hardy bulbs, perennials and shrubs that bloom so early. The cruelty comes when we are teased after a mild winter with bud swelling and early bloom…only to have them zapped by a blast of arctic air. The snow blanket is actually good…it will insulate, and you may still enjoy weeks of bloom on the hellebores. Alas, the tender petals of flowering quince, winter hazel (different than witch hazel) and cherries will wither from this cold onslaught and be gone.

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