Corsican hellebore

purple hellebore flowers

My Tough Plants #4: Hellebores

Unlike the other plants in this series, this one doesn’t have a reputation for weediness. And yet, in my garden it seeds around freely, to the point I’ve pulled out seedlings that are too numerous or in the wrong places. So technically, hellebores can be weeds. It’s all a matter of being in the right place, after all.

January 2013

Corsican hellebore

I have two species of hellebores here: the tall, jagged-edged-leaved Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius), with lime green flowers in winter and early spring; and the oriental hellebore (Helleborus orientalis), with flowers in shades from white to dark purple and big, round-edged leaves.

Both put up with shade and tree roots, and are of no interest to deer. The plants are evergreen. They don’t vanish in autumn; in fact, that’s when they perk up and start to think about blooming. Buds appear by Christmas and flowers are present until mid-spring. At that point, seeds are ripening, there’s lots of other stuff coming on, and it’s time for the hellebore bloom stalks to be cut down and removed. The leathery, dark green leaves look fine through the summer. A decent watering every week or two is helpful in our dry summers. If too dry, oriental hellebores flop and look pathetic, splayed out on the ground like they’ve given up.

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Oriental hellebore

The plants are long-lived and reliable. Maintaining them is simple. Corsican hellebores bear their flowers and leaves on the same stems. By the time the flowers look tired and seedy (May in my garden), fresh stems have appeared. I cut down the old stems at ground level and that’s that. The plants do have a tendency to splay as the stems lengthen. In spots where I don’t want them to flop onto other plants, I pound in 3 or 4 stout stakes around a plant and surround it with twine. I untie this before the cutting down operation and replace it afterward, to support the developing new stems.

Oriental hellebores produce separate leaf and flowering stems. I cut down the old leaves in spring, just about the time buds appear. New leaf stems grow along with the flower ones, so the plant rapidly plumps up again. I cut down the old flower stems by June to prevent seeding. When cutting down the old flower stems, make sure you don’t cut leaf stems by mistake (says the Voice of Experience).

Hellebores do have one annoying pest — aphids. They love the new growth and can multiply alarmingly on fresh leaves and even on flowers. I wash them off with water, either from a spray bottle or with the hose. Over the years, I’ve seen one or two plants afflicted by what I suspect is some sort of fungal disease; they produce fewer flowers and stunted leaves. The best “cure” might be to remove the sick plant and replace it with a fresh one, keeping in mind that if the problem really does originate with a soil-dwelling fungus, the new plant may be affected too.

Oriental Hellebore "Ivory Prince"

Hellebore “Ivory Prince”

Almost all of my hellebores are the basic species. I acquired my oriental hellebores by  scooping up a clump of seedlings at the two-leaf stage with a teaspoon from a public planting. (I admit the deed!) That’s why they’re all in shades of pinky-purple, although the colours vary a bit within the group. I’ve also bought a couple plants, one white with pink speckles and a creamy yellow one (whose flowers almost always turn rusty brown at the edges, so it’s a disappointment). I also bought a plant of the variety called “Ivory Prince.” It lives in a big blue pot and is quite a feature in February.

Plant breeders have been busy with the hellebore family, so a huge variety of colours and flower types is available. I’m intrigued by the ones with slate-coloured or almost black flowers, but the frilly double forms in shades of pink look like too much of a good thing to me.

Hellebores, especially the Corsican type, are good “anchor” plants in a perennial bed. They have enough presence to impart elegance to spots that include some of the weedier tough plants. Hostas are good company for hellebores. Their leaves are similar in size but different in texture, and they like the same conditions. (In my rooty patch, however, hostas do best in pots parked near the hellebores, rather than planted in the ground). Ferns look good near hellebores too, specifically the tough Dryopteris types. In small gardens, Corsican hellebores may be used like small shrubs, underplanted with bulbs and a groundcover such as plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), which has electric-blue flowers in late summer. I prefer it to periwinkle, which is evergreen and overly vigorous.

Something to consider — Corsican hellebore plants can exude a distinctly skunky aroma, especially in warm weather. If you grow them, be prepared for questions about pot smoking. On the other hand, if you wish to indulge discreetly (pot is legal in Canada come October 17th), you can say, “Oh, you must have caught a whiff of the hellebores.”

Fall 2010

Corsican Hellebore, variegated hosta (in pot), and hardy cyclamen, Fall 2010

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January Flowers

I used to garden in a place with real winters. The ground froze and the garden was sealed under a foot or more of snow for several months. It was closed for the season. There was no question of any garden work during those months. The only thing to do was look at seed and plant catalogues and dream.

Here, winter is just a pause, not a shutdown. Today it’s 10 C (50 F). The only snow is on distant mountain peaks and the grass is green and wet. Everything is wet, and in fact there’s about as much garden work to do as in the frozen, snow-covered situation. I can’t even mow the grass, never mind dig or edge. Pruning may be done, but that’s about all. And starting seeds in the house, of course, but that’s not really a garden job, since it’s done inside.

But things are blooming — in January, one of the longest, coldest, darkest months of the year. When I moved back to the coast more than twenty years ago I couldn’t wait to install shrubs and other plants that would bloom in January.

First among them was a Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis). Unfortunately, the plant I ended up with, and possibly its location (in dry sandy soil, shaded by maples and an ailanthus much of the summer when the buds would be forming) has resulted in almost no bloom. Very disappointing. There have been only three years out of those twenty when it has produced any flowers at all. This is one of those years, why I’m not sure, because the conditions under which the plant is growing haven’t changed. Maybe last summer was perfect in some way. In any case, the little tree is in full bloom right now — not spectacularly, compared to better plants in happier situations, but better than no bloom at all.

Chinese Witch Hazel

Chinese Witch Hazel

The individual flowers are just thready wisps of yellow; you have to see hundreds of them at once to get the full effect, and they don’t photograph well when there are relatively few, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. There is a nice fragrance too, when there are enough flowers.

The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is also blooming well. It’s a semi-evergreen shrub that shoots out new branches all summer long. They quite often die inexplicably, so a good deal of pruning is needed to keep the plant looking tidy. The flowers are by no means showy, but the fragrance, especially in the evening, is something special — a lemony sweetness.

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle Shrub

Winter Honeysuckle Shrub

Another January-blooming plant that sends out an alluring fragrance at night is really a weed — the spurge laurel, Daphne laureola. It’s a tough, drought-tolerant shrub that self-seeds generously, so has become an invasive pest in woodlands here. I have a few of them around the edges of the garden, and as long as I pull up the dozens of seedlings they produce, I can enjoy the haunting perfume on damp winter evenings.

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola)

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola)

Then there’s the Algerian iris (I. unguicularis). The foliage is messy, but the flowers are improbably gorgeous in January.

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

The Corsican hellebores are among the winter-blooming stalwarts in this garden, totally reliable, as are snowdrops.

Corsican hellebore

Corsican hellebore

Hellebore and Snowdrops

Hellebore and Snowdrops

My scraggly rosemary plant, which has put up with shade for twenty years of summers, blooms defiantly in January. I guess the absence of leaves on the maples in autumn enables it to set buds. The flowers are little pale blue things that would go unnoticed in summer.

Rosemary in bloom

Rosemary in bloom

And finally, another weedy plant with fragrant flowers — the modest violet. The perfume sneaks up and delivers a pleasant surprise when I’m standing around contemplating the garden on a January day.

Sweet Violets

Sweet Violets

 

 

 

 

Witch hazel, Winter honeysuckle, Spurge laurel, Hellebore, Snowdrops, Rosemary, Violets, Yellow crocuses, Iris unguicularis.