Quick Guide to Growing Hellebores
The well-loved hellebore: it’s shade-loving, evergreen, and thrives in zones 4–9.
“And green its glaucous leaves expand with fingers like a mermaids hand.”
This description by the Bishop of Down, describing the webbed like leaves of hellebores, is one that’s stuck with me every time we are working with them in the garden, nursery, or arranging. I cannot help picturing their dark green foliage as mermaids' hands. Hellebores are commonly called the lenten rose. Although not related to the rose, they are part of the buttercup “Ranunculaceae” family which also includes clematis, buttercups, anemones, and delphiniums. Plants in this family have toxic properties. In the Odyssey, the Greek hero Odysseus poisons his arrows with hellebore!
Blooming from December into early spring, they are a much-anticipated bloom, the first of the year here in Oregon. Hellebores like a shady position in the garden with well-drained soil. They love a well-prepared site, cultivated deeply for their long and fleshy roots, about two to three feet deep and amended with rotten manure.
For harvesting, it’s best to wait a few years to allow the plant to mature and re-seed, which might be the most challenging thing to do, but it will be well worth the wait when you see little helle babies popping up!
Hellebores don’t love to be potted or moved, but if you must transplant, it’s best to do so in summer, after the seed has set, not in late winter when they want to flower—and that goes for pruning too! They don’t need much pruning. All you need to do is to remove any damaged or burned leaves before winter when they start their bloom season.
If you are keeping your hellebore in a pot, make sure it has excellent drainage and lots of room to grow. Most varieties reach two feet wide and 18 inches tall. We grow our hellebores in one-gallon pots, each with several blooms. If you want to start hellebores from seed, you’ll be waiting about three years for blooms.
For a cut flower, we have tried a few different things, and it all seems to depend on variety. The double petals and softer petal varieties (flower girl and dark/handsome) seem to be more tender, having a droopy romantic look in an arrangement. The more firm, fleshy-petaled varieties (ivory prince, champion, and cinnamon snow) can keep their stem form for several hours to days. You can also try dipping the stem in boiling water right after cutting for 30 seconds. Placing flowers in warm water after cutting revives them because warm water is easier to absorb than cold. Unlike with most flowers, you want to forage them before they have opened and been pollinated for a longer vase life, but with hellebores, the best time to harvest your hellebores is later in their bloom season when their nectaries have fallen off. You can see the light green tubes in the center of the flower are the hellebores nectaries, and the hair like follicles are the stamens. Once these fall away, the flower will have a longer vase life.
Hellebores are a beautiful addition to any garden—large or small. Best of luck as you grow these lovelies!