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Hellebore Care – How To Grow Hellebores

Hellebore Care – How To Grow Hellebores


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By: Becca Badgett, Co-author of How to Grow an EMERGENCY Garden

Flowers of hellebores are a welcome sight when they bloom in late winter to early spring, sometimes while the ground is still covered with snow. Different varieties of the hellebore plant offer a range of flower colors, from white to black. One of the earliest blooms spotted in many areas, nodding hellebore flowers are often fragrant and long-lasting.

Growing hellebores is a worthwhile task for the gardener. Aside from lovely and unusual flowers, the hellebore plant has attractive green foliage that is aesthetically pleasing in the landscape. Once established, hellebore care is minimal. This herbaceous or evergreen perennial is disliked by deer and other animal pests prone to munching on plants. All parts of the hellebore plant are poisonous, so take care to keep children and pets away.

Tips for Growing Hellebores

When planting from seed or division, place the hellebore into well-draining, organic soil in filtered sun or a shady location. The hellebore plant will return for many years; make sure the space will accommodate growth and has proper sunlight. Hellebores need no more than a few hours of dappled light and grow successfully in shady areas. Plant the hellebore under deciduous trees or scattered through a woodland garden or shaded natural area

Soaking the soil in which the hellebore is growing helps the hellebore plant to look its best. Hellebore care includes removal of older leaves when they appear damaged. Care for hellebores should also include careful fertilization. Too much nitrogen may result in lush foliage and a shortage of blooms.

Plant hellebore seeds in the fall. A 60-day moist chilling period is needed when planting seeds of the hellebore plant. Planting seed in fall allows this to happen naturally in areas with cold winters. Wait three to four years for blooms on young plants grown from seed. Divide overgrown clumps in spring, after flowering or in autumn.

Types of Hellebores

While many varieties of hellebores exist, Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten Rose, is among the earliest of winter bloomers and offers the widest selection of colors.

Helleborus foetidus, called the stinking, bear foot or bear paw hellebore, offers flowers in a pastel shade of green and has an unusual fragrance disliked by some; consequently it may be referred to as stinking. Foliage of the bear foot hellebore is segmented and serrated, sometimes turning to deep red in cold weather, when it is highly ornamental. Flowers may be edged in the deep red to burgundy color. This hellebore plant prefers more sun than its oriental counterparts.

Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, features 3-inch (7.5 cm.) blooms of the purest white. Many hybrids of hellebores offer a range of flower colors, colors often change as they mature.

Hellebore care is simple and worthwhile. Plant a variety of hellebores in your garden in the shade for a lovely spring flower.

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Read more about Hellebore


How to care for your new hellebore

We are often asked how to care for new hellebore plants once you take them home from our nursery or when they arrive at your home via our mail order service. We hope the following advice covers everything you need to know:

On arrival

Place outside and remove all packaging

Please remove all the packaging from around your hellebore and stand your plant outside in a sheltered position, out of the wind. This applies all year round, including Winter.

Test the compost and, if dry, stand your plant in a saucer of water for an hour, ensuring that you remove the saucer after this period.

Plant as soon as possible as hellebores are very hardy plants and will be happier in the ground than left standing in their pots.

If planting is delayed due to frozen or waterlogged ground conditions, it’s important to to remove flower stamens and petals that have fallen within the plant. This should be done daily until planting out as it will help prevent grey mould (also known as botrytis) from forming around the base of the flower stems or within the crown in damp Winter weather. Spray with a fungicide at the first signs of any fungal problems, if they appear.

If your hellebore does become frosted and lies flat, it will defrost and recover as the weather warms- this is normal even when planted.

Where to plant

Plant your hellebores where they will receive some summer shade

Hellebores are very tolerant and will grow in most soils from slightly acidic through to slightly alkaline, as long as the ground is not extremely dry or waterlogged. They will tolerate drier conditions in summer providing there is some shade but bear in mind that too much shade all year round can reduce the number of flowers. They are best grown amongst deciduous shrubs and trees which will give them plenty of light in Winter and Spring but which will provide some welcome shade in the Summer months. With just a few exceptions, they are hardy in the UK, but prefer a sheltered site away from cold winds. By planting your hellebores on a sloping bed, you will naturally improve the drainage and make it much easier to look into the flowers.

Soil preparation and planting

Hellebores are deep rooted and, to flower at their best, they need plenty of nutrients. Dig your soil as deeply as possible and mix in plenty of humus, in the form of leaf mould, spent mushroom compost, garden compost or well-rotted manure. Avoid soil preparation when the ground is frozen or waterlogged, wait until conditions improve before planting out.

A selection of recommended products for planting and aftercare

If your hellebore is dry, water well from below before planting. Dig your hole deeper and wider than the pot. Carefully remove the hellebore from its pot, sprinkle Rootgrow mycorrhizal fungi on to the root if desired, then plant it at the same depth as in the pot, firming the soil back around. There is no need to tease out the roots as this causes unnecessary damage to their fibrous root system. Water well after planting.

If planting in groups, we advise at least 24 inches (60cm) between plants.

Aftercare

Apply an annual mulch of humus in July/August (when next year’s flower buds are being formed) and again in late December. Be careful not to mulch into the crown of the plant as this can cause the buds to rot. In Spring work in some calcified seaweed fertiliser and blood, fish and bone. Remember to keep your newly-planted hellebores well-watered during their first year. Remove the old faded flower stems usually around March/April, unless you require seed, to encourage next year’s developing new growth. Spray occasionally with a fungicide and insecticide for greenfly control (if desired) and keep a look out for slugs and snails on flower buds, new foliage and flower stems, treat accordingly.

Removing old foliage

Removing all foliage back to the base of the stems on Helleborus x hybridus Ashwood Garden Hybrid

H. x hybridus Ashwood Garden Hybrids and deciduous species: remove all foliage to the base in late December/ January. This reduces the risk of infecting the new season’s growth with any overwintering pests and diseases.

Evergreen species and interspecies hybrids (including Rodney Davey Marbled Group, H. x ericsmithii, H. x sternii, H. argutifolius and H. foetidus): remove damaged or diseased foliage only as needed to tidy them up in late Autumn. In late Spring remove old flower stems and leaves back to the base to reveal new young growth at the base.

H. niger: after flowering, remove only the old flower stems, damaged or diseased foliage as needed to tidy them up

Growing hellebores in containers

Choose a large pot with a wide rim for growing hellebores in containers

Hellebores are naturally deep rooting plants and therefore select a container that has a good depth and with a wider top than base to ensure you can easily remove the plant when it requires re-potting. Choose a container that is a little bigger than the existing pot so you do not over pot the plant and risk it become waterlogged in soggy unused compost.

Use a good quality compost, preferably loam- based, such as John Innes No 2 with extra grit for drainage. Stand the container on pot feet. They are hungry plants and will need regular watering and feeding, with a high potash fertiliser such as Chempak No 4, in summer. Position the container where you can enjoy it from the house during flowering, then move it in Summer to a semi-shaded position. Re-pot every couple of years with fresh compost or preferably plant out directly in the garden.

Moving or splitting established hellebores

If you wish to move your plant or it becomes too big, you can lift and divide it in September. The whole plant should be dug up very carefully. When splitting, the large root system is far easier to handle if all the soil is washed off before dividing the root ball up using a knife or small saw, separating out into single crowns. Re-plant the crowns in well-prepared soil and keep shaded and moist, but be aware that the new divisions may take a few years to recover.


How to plant hellebores

Hellebores are excellent for bringing early colour to shady herbaceous borders and the areas between deciduous shrubs. They are also happy in dappled shade under trees. Plant them in early spring in rich, heavy, limey soil that won’t dry out in the summer.

Hellebores can be planted at any time of the year when the soil isn’t frozen.

But bear in mind that they don’t like being moved, so keep them in the same spot once they’ve been planted.

To keep them growing well, it’s ideal when new flowers and foliage grow, to cut back any old, large leaves. Mulching with organic matter every year will help too.


Place of Origin

Having lost its popularity a little, hellebore again became a favorite of gardeners only some 10-15 years ago, when it was talked about as a wonderful healer, able to cure various diseases.

Quite often there are thickets of hellebore and in nature – on the edges of mountain deciduous forests in Central Europe, the Mediterranean and Western Asia.

Hellebore belongs to the family Ranunculaceae and, like all Ranunculaceae, also poisonous! Evergreen hellebore is not only hardy, but also drought-resistant, and its flowering in the middle lane begins in March, when flower beds are not yet decorated with bright colors. Flowers of Helleborus very beautiful, a bit like lanterns hanging, large enough in diameter up to 8 cm (3 inch).


More Care tips for Growing Hellebores

To get the most out of your helleborus plant, these extra tips for pests, companion plants and cold hardiness will be helpful.

Pests that like Hellebores

Slugs and snails are attracted to Hellebores. These can be controlled with baits, or Diatomaceous earth.

You can also surround the plants with eggshells which will deter snails and slugs from coming hear the plant because of their sharpness.

Aphids are attracted to the foliage of hellebores. Be sure to check the leaves for fungus. Hellebores are often infected by botrytis, a virus that likes cool and damp conditions. It shows itself as a grey mold covering the plant.

Companion Plants for Lenten Rose

Hellebores love to be planted near other shade loving plants. I have mine in garden beds with several varieties of hostas, (Check out Autumn Frost Hosta and Hosta Minuteman for variegated varieties that look lovely with hellebores)

Ferns, coral bells, astilbe and bleeding hearts also like shady spots and will do well sharing a garden spot with helleborus.

Other choices are foxgloves, crocus. cyclamen and wild ginger. Caladium, and elephant ears are good choices, as well.

How cold hardy is a helleborus perennial?

Hellebores will over winter in zone 4-9. For winters that are quite harsh, mulching with hay or straw prior to winter will protect it from the cold temperatures and strong wind of the winter months.

Normally, I don’t suggest buying plants when they are in flower, but hellebores have very long lasting flowers and a good way to see what color they will be is to buy them during this time.

Shop for Helleboresis in February and March because the selection is largest and the plants are in flower so you can see what the color will be.

Be sure to check out my list of other cold hardy perennial plants here.

Is Lenten rose toxic?

All parts of Hellebores have poisonous characteristics. The plant is toxic if eaten in large quantities. Minor, and more major, skin irritation is also a possibility.

Hellebores contain protoanemonin in varying amounts depending on the species that you are growing. The roots of all Helleborus plants are strongly emetic and can cause vomiting. Roots can also be potentially fatal.

Both animals and humans are affected by this toxic nature. Hellebores are said to have a burning taste. Take care in gardens where pets and children are nearby. This page from Cornel University talks more in depth about the poisonous aspect of Helleborus.

Another very toxic plant often grown in gardens, is brugmansia – also known as Angel’s trumpets. Read about brugmansia here.

Varieties of Hellebores

From my research online, I have earned that there are 17 known species of Helleborus. From my experience at Big Box stores, the most commonly seen one is the Helleborus x hybridus ‘Red Lady’ from Monrovia.

The variety in colors and shapes of the petals is large, so it’s worth searching out some of the less common types. Here are a few helleborus varieties to try. (affiliate links)

  • Helleborus – Ivory Prince – pale pink leaves with green centers and smooth edges.
  • Helleborus – Pink Frost – White pink and rose toned flowers.
  • Helleborus – Honeymoon French Kiss – Purple and pink colors on white.
  • Helleborus – Ruby Wine – Burgundy flowers with yellow centers.

One of my readers has informed me that there are 20 species and lots of hybrids. Thanks for this info which I have added to my post.


This is a yellow hellebore with a reddish center. This hellebore set seed for the first time last autumn, but I neglected to pay close attention and when I went to collect the seed, it already fell to the ground. I’m on the look out for seedings. Keep your fingers crossed.

I have a couple unknown varieties of hellebore I purchased from Trader Joe’s. I jokingly refer to them as Helleborus ‘Trader Joseph’. Honestly, if I didn’t save my plant tags, I’d forget all the cultivar names. Not knowing their names doesn’t make them any less beautiful. One has deep burgundy flowers and the other is white with a green center.

Hellebores are also great cut flowers and they bloom when gardeners are most desperate for signs of life in the garden. If you don’t grow hellebores, these plants are worth adding. You’ll be glad you did.

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