Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials
by Jack Ruttle
Hellebores sound like a dream come true. They really do bloom when the garden looks wintry and the ground is still dotted with the last traces of snow. The flowers are big, bold and abundant, and they come in several colors--pinks, purples, dusky reds, white, pale green and even some yellows. And their color range keeps expanding as plant breeders give more attention to these up-and-coming perennials. What's more, hellebores are shade lovers, which is good news for maturing gardens. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is that the foliage of most kinds of hellebores is attractive year-round. No wonder knowledgeable plantsmen rank hellebores among the top 10 high-performance perennials.
It's not just that flowers of hellebores come so early that makes them appealing to gardeners: They stay awhile as well. Because the buds begin to emerge during very cool weather and the whole process occurs slowly, the display can go on for months. Individual blossoms can range in size from an inch to three inches across (depending on the species) and are shaped like giant buttercups, to which they are related.
What sets hellebores above most other perennials, though, is their striking foliage, which looks good year-round in most locations. I hear that the leaves are even able to come through hailstorms in good condition. The foliage of most kinds is leathery and a beautiful deep green. Individual leaves are deeply divided and "palmate", which means they are shaped roughly like a very large hand spread wide. They might remind you of mayapple or of pachysandra.
Hellebore foliage combines well with other shade-loving perennials like wild ginger (Asarum), cyclamen or Pulmonaria, as well as with bulbs such as snowdrops or miniature daffodils. Plant these combinations under open shrubs or trees with high shade. Serious ground covers like vinca, pachysandra or ivy are too aggressive to make good companions. An established clump of hellebores will cover a patch of ground quite effectively, but the plants spread so slowly and are so expensive that they can't be rightly classed among classic ground-cover plants.
Individual hellebore plants are long-lived. They don't ever need dividing and, in fact, they recover slowly from any root disturbance. Division is a very slow way to propagate hellebores (some can't be divided), which is one reason the plants are still fairly uncommon in garden centers. Even many mail-order catalogs offer only one or two kinds. Hellebores do grow quite readily from seed, however. The easiest way to get more plants is to move the seedlings that will begin to appear around the base of established plants.