All About Hellebores

Hellebores are an incredible group of evergreen perennials for gardeners from zone 3 to zone 9. In warmer zones, they are winter and early spring-blooming plants providing colour from late November through April. In colder zones, they bloom in late winter and early spring as soon as the snow melts. In any zone they provide interest when most other plants are soundly dormant bringing forth the first major burst of colour for the season.

The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, is the first to bloom. In mild winter climates it could even be considered a late season bloomer instead of an early bloomer since new cultivars can begin blooming in November and December. In colder regions they bloom as soon as the snow melts. They are followed by many new hybrids including the Frostkiss Series, the Helleborus Gold Collection, the Ice ‘n Roses Series, and rare hybrids such as ‘Rosemary’ and ‘Mme Lemmonier’. Next come the Lenten roses, Helleborus x hybridus, which offer the widest range of colours, flower detailing, and flower forms.

There are hellebores that are better in shade. There are others that are better in sun. Some are great in containers. Others are best in the ground. There are plants with outward-facing flowers and plants with nodding flowers. All hellebores are easy to grow, long-blooming, and most are long-lived, especially the Lenten roses which can last for decades and even a human lifetime. They bulk up over time getting bigger each year and putting on more and more impressive displays for months on end. Their evergreen foliage makes them useful plants year-round. In all, hellebores are simply one of the most important and useful genera in the entire perennial world.

The Christmas Rose

The Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, has a long tradition of use in the cultures of northern Europe where the plants were brought indoors during the Christmas season to decorate the house. Their pure white blooms and central cluster of golden yellow stamens seemed the perfect accent for the holiday season and to brighten the house and garden during the darkest days of the year. The Christmas rose has quite dark green, leathery leaves and flowers that are outward facing. In mild winter climates it usually comes into bud and bloom from late November to mid December continuing into the new year. The Helleborus Gold Collection has revolutionized the Christmas Rose with numerous cultivars all starting with the letter “J” that are particularly robust in both foliage and flowers. The bloom time for these plants can run from December to April! Each cultivar has it’s own valuable attributes. ‘Jacob’ is the original with a subtle fragrance and good tolerance for being brought into the house. ‘Jonas’ and ‘Jesko’ are also good for this purpose. ‘Jonas’ possesses a few extra petals giving a fuller look to the flowers. ‘Josef Lemper’ is the largest-growing of the HGC Christmas roses and is best in the landscape.

The Christmas rose is the hardiest of the hellebores. Reports from northern Ontario and Alberta suggest that H. niger is hardy to zone 4a for sure but probably to zone 3a with a good thick mulch of leaves and good snow cover.

The Stemmed Hybrids or Snow Roses

In recent years an entirely new hybrid group has been developed from the caulescent or stemmed species from the Mediterranean (H. lividus and H. argutifolius) crossed with the Christmas rose, H. niger which hails from Switzerland, southern Germany, northern Italy and east to Croatia. H. foetidus has also been used. These intergeneric hybrids offer leathery leaves on which sit clusters of outward-facing flowers mostly in shades of white, cream, pink, and dusty rose. These hybrids are more tolerant of full sun and also do well in pots or the ground whereas the Lenten roses prefer part sun to shade and don’t enjoy pots beyond a few years.

The first cultivar to make waves of this new hybrid group was Ivory Prince but more recently the Helleborus Gold Collection has introduced many superlative cultivars that have captured the imaginations of gardeners and designers. Since then the Lenten roses have been crossed into this stemmed hybrid group — a feat previously thought to be impossible — producing outward-facing flowers that sit on top of incredibly mottled foliage in deep, bold colours once the exclusive domain of Helleborus x hybridus. These new hybrids are known as the Frostkiss series. Another series also employing this same type of cross is the Ice ‘n Roses series. These are huge plants with outward-facing flowers sometimes reaching nearly two feet tall and sitting above very large and very dark green leaves. These new series are continuing a long tradition of innovation in hellebores that continues to greatly benefit the gardening world.

The stemmed or snow roses are usually listed as zone 5 hardy. However, gardeners are having success in zone 4 where they are protected by a good mulch of fallen leaves and good snow cover.

The Lenten Rose

The Lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, is the last group of hellebores to bloom. In coastal BC the buds usually form in late January opening usually in mid to late February. Flowering continues into April and sometimes May. In colder zones the Lenten roses will bloom in early spring after the Christmas and Snow roses. Helleborus x hybridus is usually listed as zone 5 but many gardeners have been having good success with a good mulch of fallen leaves and good snow cover. Some gardeners are even blooming Lenten roses in zone 3! Our production manager used to live in Winnipeg where she successfully grew and bloomed Winter Jewels hellebores. In fall she would mulch the plants with a deep pile of fallen leaves and then place an upside down styrofoam cooler over top of them. Then, through the winter she would shovel snow off of her patio over top of the hellebores created a deep mound of insulating snow. In the spring she was rewarded with beautiful flowers.

H. x hybridus offers the largest colour range and the most diverse flower forms of all hellebores with nearly every colour of the rainbow and single, semi-double, and double forms. Most Lenten roses are grown from seed strains which has the benefit of producing an incredible diversity of flower colours and patterns that are well worth collecting. There are others that are tissue cultured so that every plant is identical.