Hellebores and ‘Hazels
As winter loosens it’s grip on Mother Nature and days are brighter and longer, I look forward to my Christmas Rose, or hellebores.
By Steffie Littlefield
[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener Magazine, January/February 2012]
As winter loosens it’s grip on Mother Nature and days are brighter and longer, I look forward to my Christmas Rose, or hellebores. Ever defiant to ice and snow, these charming almost exotic- looking flowers push their buds up past their leathery dark green foliage towards the winter sun. Flowers can be 3 inches in diameter with a wild rose appearance. What’s not to like about a plant that grows happily in the shade, has glossy evergreen leaves, blooms from March into late May and some years even June if kept cool and moist, seeds itself just enough to establish a small colony, but not enough to be invasive, and it is very long lived.
As my career in horticulture has grown, so has my interest in these almost-winter-blooming perennials. Other varieties are known for their bloom time being near the spring Easter holiday and were nicknamed Lenten rose. Helleborus orientalis has mauve to cream flowerers, larger foliage clumps and taller more erect flower stalks. Some recent named varieties to look for are ‘Mardi Gras’, ‘Plum Shades’, ‘Bicolor Shades’, ‘Brandywine’ and the unique ‘Ivory Prince’. ‘Ivory Prince’ has remarkable foliage that stands up well to
winter weather and has a blue gray coloring in the leaves. The flowers are ivory as suggested by the name but with a hint of blush pink on the edges. Most hellebores prefer loose organic soil with lots of compost for moisture retention in the summer and good drainage in the wet months. These plants are good companions to large, blooming shrubs that lose leaves in the winter, exposing the evergreen foliage to the warm winter sun, but whose dense summer growth protects these cool-season plants from the hot summer sun. An excellent companion plant would be the winter bloomer, witchhazel.
Witchhazels (Hamamelis spp.) have a truly miraculous flower that opens from clusters of buds up and down the stems. As they are warmed briefly by winter sun the buds burst open with threadlike petals that unfurl mid day and then recoil back into themselves to protect their tender petals from the dropping temperatures at night. The only thing that can top this fascinating flower function is its incredible honeylike fragrance that can be detected from afar as it permeates the still, winter air. Varieties readily available include the native H.
vernalis, with antique gold flowers covering the massive 12′ x 12′ shrub; the red-blooming, slightly smaller H. x intermedia ‘Diane’, or ‘Jelena’ whose growth habit is low but broad-spreading with the color of glowing copper, and the brilliant yellow-flowering ‘Arnold Promise’. Any of these underplanted with hellebores will make a stunning display to wake -up the late winter garden.
Cut short the bleak colorless winter season and bring spring earlier to your garden with the amazing witchhazels and hellebores. Both enjoy natural woodland settings or are just as happy in a northern exposure. Other garden plants to add to this planting include the bayberry shrubs for an added evergreen backdrop, red twig or yellow twig dogwoods for bright colored winter stems, fothergillia for white flowers to follow the witch hazels and hardy native ferns to backdrop the hellebores. If given enough space I might include the ‘Annabelle’ or oak leaf hydrangeas in this mix for summer flowers. The dried flower heads add to the winter garden scene.
Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer at Garden Heights Nursery. She has degrees from St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Southeast Missouri State, and is a member of the Gateway Professional Horticulturist Association.