If you have noticed the warm weather this winter, you may also have noticed that many bulbs and plants are popping up and budding – and in fact, they have been for some time. The Hellebores in the Park were in bud by early December which is a tad early, but are now in full bloom at just about the right time.
One well known and adored Helleborus species, H. niger is commonly referred to as the “Christmas Rose” because it usually blooms around Christmas even though it has no relation to the rose family. A bit of lore involving H. niger tells us that in the middle ages it was also known as the “Oracle flower”. Country people would place twelve buds in water on Christmas night, with each bud symbolizing a month. It was said that the year’s weather could be forecast based on the state of each bud, with closed buds meaning bad weather and open indicating good weather during their represented month. Quaint though this is, this tale tells me that these same prognosticators likely also enjoyed the decorative aspects of these blooms, as Hellebore blooms will keep for several days floating in a bowl of water. I often place a bowlful atop my kitchen table when my own plants bloom.
The history of the Hellebore plant is fascinating, especially its horticultural comings and goings, such as the way it moved from its native haunts of the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe and then later to America and beyond. I won’t go into the unabridged history here, but I will tell you a little about the beautiful plant itself in hopes of spurring you to visit Madison Square Park and gaze at our robust Hellebore collection.
Hellebores are native to the eastern Mediterranean in the former Yugoslav Republic, with some also distributed from the British Isles, through Europe to Asia Minor. One outlying species hails from as far as China. There are 17 species of Hellebore as of now, but the plants that you find in gardens across the U.S. are usually one of the many hybrids. The majority of Hellebore plants in the Park, planted before I arrived, are listed in the records as Helleborus orientalis or “Lenten Rose”. However very few H. orientalis are found in gardens, so our plants are actually Helleborus x hybridus, which are hybrids of H. orientalis and one or more other species such as H. torquatus, H. purpurescens or any number of others. These hybrids produce an amazing and colorful mélange of flowering plants that range from white, pink and yellow, to dusky plums, purples and black. They can also be bear flowers that are single, semi-double or fully-doubled.
The other hybrid found in our park is the drop dead gorgeous Helleborus x ericsmithii, itself a cross from another hybrid called H. x sternii and the “Christmas Rose”.
The foliage tends to have a green to pewter color veined with a lighter green, sometimes having rose colored stems. Flowers are borne in clusters atop short stems that have multiple buds. Each cream to rose bloom is flat faced and roughly 2 to 4 inches wide.
Many Hellebores sport evergreen foliage that stays attractive year round, but many become ratty or browned at the edges and benefit from pruning to let the blooms look their best. This should be done after the buds have formed, as the foliage protects the newly forming buds from frost and physical injury. Hellebores are tough and adaptable plants that can live in full sun to deep shade, though most garden varieties prefer to be sited in partial shade, as full sun can scorch the leaves, whereas in full shade they often flop over and produce fewer blooms. Planting them under deciduous trees in moist but freely draining soil can be ideal, as hellebore flowering stems contain leafy photosynthetic bracts that help fuel the plant and replenish depleted energy before the canopy of trees grow their leaves.
Hellebores can be grown in a container, though personally I’ve always thought they looked a little out of place and uncomfortable. This is just opinion though, and you can give them a try in a mixed container if you like. Hellebores pair exceedingly well with Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), with the Hellebore blooms lasting for a long time…often persisting for up to two months, though the original color will fade to green.