For those of you basking in the warm climes of the South and Southwest, the words “winter blooming” probably don’t have special significance. After all, a good portion of your plant palette flowers between September and March. So what’s special about hibernal blossoms, you ask? Well, here in the Northeast, or in the Midwest where I grew up, or for that matter, anywhere that winter temperatures regularly dip below freezing, a plant that’s brave enough to bloom through the vicissitudes of frost and rime seems downright magical. And in fact, throughout history, plants that remain not only green but growing throughout the winter months have long been ascribed mystical powers. Of these, perhaps the most famous, and most certainly my favorite, are the hellebores, otherwise known as Christmas or Lenten roses.
Few other plants have been in human cultivation longer than hellebores. Native to the mountainous Caucus region, hellebores appear very early on in Greek mythology, where the progenitor of many modern hybrids, H. Niger, was fed to the daughters of Proetus, King of Argus, to cure insanity. Nor was herb’s fame limited only to problems of the mind: hellebore was widely regarded as a bane to witches and other harmful spirits, and was considered the perfect ingredient for breaking spells and enchantments. Carried by the Romans to all parts of their empire, hellebores could until quite recently often be found in the country gardens of England and France, specifically planted right beside the door to keep evil at bay. Of course a pagan plant with such powers was quickly subsumed into Christian mythology as well; its common name, Christmas Rose, comes from the touching legend of Madelon, who accompanied the shepherds at the birth of the Christ child. Despairing of having no gift to present in the depth of winter, not even simple flowers, Madleon began to weep. An angel, taking pity on her kindly soul, led the girl from the stable, and touched the barren winter ground, where a hellebore immediately sprung up in full bloom.
Interestingly, while famous throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages for its curative powers, the hellebore’s long medicinal use has always skirted with disaster. All species of hellebores contain potent alkaloids that are fatal if consumed in high quantities. (Alexander the Great, for one, may have met his end from an overly large dose of hellebore.) Even the plant’s name signals danger: from the Greek hellein, to kill, and bora food, warning of the dire results that come from over consumption.
Fortunately, nowadays interest in hellebores bears far less risk, being entirely limited to the plants charming evergreen foliage, and it’s enchanting habit of blooming right through the snow. (Unlike many other advertised “winter bloomers” that actually flower in only mild climates, while skulking guiltily in Northern gardens until early spring, hellebores truly do bloom when they are supposed to over most of their range. Here in my zone 5B garden, flowers often arrive early in December, and continue to bloom, on and off through the drifts, right into early March.
And, to make the situation even more delightful, hybridizers have recently taken a keen interest in the clan, interbreeding species to produce an incredible host of new cultivars, most labeled with some version of Helleborus x hybridus. The flowers, which can be single or double, now come in a wide variety of colors, from white to pink to magenta, as well as pale greens, blues and spotted versions. Of particular interest are several new varieties available from Burpee’s Heronswood Nursery: ‘Kingston Cardinal,’ with mauve, fully double flowers; ‘Green Heron’ a single chartreuse; and ‘Snow Bunting’ with white petals and a green center. Many of the original species also have considerable charm; I happen, for instance, to find the strangely contorted foliage and flower of H. Foetidus pleasing quirky.
In terms of culture, few plants could be more obliging – if grown within very precise parameters – a warning not wisely ignored by the aspiring hellebore aficionado. Part of the problem is that culture instructions for many hellebore varieties are often insufficiently specific, and this can lead to disaster. A perfect example is a label from a hellebore I recently purchased: “moderate to partial shade, adequate moisture” is all it said. Though that sounds sufficient, it really isn’t, and explains why for years I tried to grow hellebores and failed miserably. I planted them in a shady spot as instructed, watered sufficiently, and sat back to await the grand results. And wait. And wait. While the plants didn’t quite die, they certainly didn’t thrive either. By mid-winter the foliage looked terribly ratty, and the few flowers that eventually arrived didn’t merit the decrepit look the plant held for much of the season. Then by chance I was sent some of the newer hybrid species to trial, and I decided to plant them in a particularly protected spot, away from harsh winter winds, under a large Hinoki cypress where the soil was amply moist and well amended with compost. This combination of rich soil, moisture, and winter protection proved the key, and here my hellebores have taken off, slowly expanding to carpet the entire area under the tree (aided, if truth be admitted, by the occasional purchase on my part – I often just can’t resist.)
One final caveat, although hardy into Z4, hellebores need ample snow or other protective cover to survive that far north, and there, they will bloom later in winter, hence their other common name, Lenten Rose. Also, in extreme northerly climes, the foliage does not remain evergreen. But given the right spot, these plucky little plants are remarkably enduring, and will brighten even the darkest winter corner of your traditional garden.