Wednesday, November 24, 2010

For the love of hellebores

(photo of 'Golden Sunrise' )

A few years ago, the hellebore or Christmas/Lenten rose was not common in Nova Scotian gardens. They were something for the collector, because they were expensive and hard to find locally.

Photo of 'Onyx Odyssey' courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.But plant breeders have been busy developing gorgeous new hybrids over the past 5-6 years and the plants are much easier for nurseries to source. We brought a selection of hellebores in this past spring and were very pleased at the response, so we're happy to say we have a great many new varieties coming in for spring 2011.

photo of 'Jade Tiger' courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries.
While we can't reveal all the hellebore varieties that we'll have next spring, we're showing a a number of hybrid photos just to demonstrate the huge range of colours and forms available from breeders in North America and beyond.

Photo of 'Ivory Prince'
Hellebores are relatively easy to grow provided you give them what they want. They're quite shade tolerant, but aren't what you'd call shade lovers like ferns or some hostas. They certainly appreciate winter sunlight, so you may wish to plant them under deciduous shrubs where they'll get protection from hot summer sun, but have plenty of light from fall to spring.

Pristine white hellebore, species unknown.
Hellebores want a well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. Once established, they can be quite drought-tolerant, but they appreciate a consistent amount of moisture without becoming water-logged. Too much winter wet will kill them more often than not.
Photo of 'Goldfinch'
In Nova Scotia, hellebore buds can begin to emerge in late winter or early spring, and can sometimes be destroyed by snowfalls, sudden cold snaps, or harsh winds. It's a good idea to put a protective mulch of evergreen boughs or other loose type mulch over your hellebore crowns once the ground has frozen hard, usually around Christmas. Beginning in mid-March, check carefully under the mulch to see if there are buds emerging, but don't remove the mulch until weather has stabilized in April. Even then, it's a good idea to leave the mulch nearby in case we're forecast to get a hard frost or a sudden snowstorm. It certainly can happen!

Photo of 'Ivory Prince'
Hellebores are technically evergreen, but the old foliage can get very ratty looking after one of our winters. Trim the old foliage from your plants in the spring as the flower buds and stems begin to emerge from the ground. This will allow the flowers to be displayed more easily as well as reduce the risk of disease such as black spot.

A green hellebore.
Because so many varieties of hellebores have drooping, downward-facing blooms, you may wish to plant them in a raised bed so that their intricate and lovely flowers are displayed. Did you know that the brightly coloured structures we think of as petals are actually modified leaves, called sepals? They hold their colour for many weeks after the inner structures of true flower parts have disappeared following fertilization.

Photo of 'Amber Gem' courtesy Terra Nova Nurseries.
Among the more popular and striking varieties of hellebores now available are the doubles, many of which can be compared to lotus flowers in appearance. The doubles are often more expensive than single-formed flowers, but all are beautiful and irresistible.

'Kingston Cardinal'
Usually hellebores aren't troubled by too many pests or diseases. Aphids can sometimes be a problem, and are thought to be the transmitters of diseases such as black spot and black death. Normally aphids can be controlled with a strong stream of water from a hose (you may have to do this every few days to disrupt populations) or with insecticidal soap. We haven't heard of any reports of disease around here, but will be writing about hellebores again in the spring, so we'll let you know if we find any more information.

'Apricot Winter Jewel Blush.' Photo courtesy Fraser's Thimble Farm.
Two more things to be aware of with hellebores: they are deer and rabbit resistant, which is always nice when you're dealing with the challenges of these animals in your garden.

'White Elegance.' Photo courtesy Fraser's Thimble Farm.
More importantly, all parts of the hellebore are highly toxic to humans, pets, and livestock, so it's best to handle them with gloves when dividing, transplanting or pruning them, and keep them out of spots where pets or children might get at them.

Stay tuned for future posts about growing hellebores, and for hints about the varieties we'll be carrying in the spring.