Hellebores Print

“Those who dig it up pray to Apollo and Asclepias by observing the eagle’s flight.  They say that the bird’s flight is dangerous, for it would bring death if it saw hellebore being dug!” Dioscorides, the Greek physician, 1st century A.D.

     Hellebores have been grown for centuries.  Seeds of the plant have been found in ancient tombs.  In ancient Greece, it was thought to be associated with demons, and was often administered to people who were possessed or “mad.”  That was probably not extremely helpful, since all species of hellebore are toxic.  In fact, in early Gaul, the black hellebore (Helleborus niger) was used to poison the tips of their arrows.  It gets its name from the color of its root, which was the part most often used for magic or medicine.  At one time, it was dried and powdered and used to induce sneezing.  This action was thought to help remove evil spirits or disease from the body, and gave the plant other common names, black nosewort or black nisewort.

Hellebore niger The Christmas Rose
Hellebore niger The Christmas Rose

     The flowers of H. niger  are generally white, and blossom as early as December in some zones, which accounts for its other name, the Christmas rose.  The fact that the plant could flower so beautifully even in the depths of winter made people think that it must have special powers.  It became a plant known for protection, and was often planted by doorways to keep evil spirits away.

Hellebore Sympathy
Hellebore Sympathy

     Hellebore has also been used to drive away melancholy and unexplained feelings that something bad was about to happen, or that something is terribly wrong, but one doesn’t know what it is.  A pot of blooming hellebores was brought into the room to drive those unpleasant thoughts away, and to change the atmosphere into one of calm.
     I’ve grown these plants for years for their late winter blooms that last for months.  However, it wasn’t until I saw them in Germany that I really began to appreciate their versatility.  In Germany, I saw them everywhere.  In window boxes, cold-hardy containers, perennial borders, underplanting trees, in Christmas decorations, and cut flower bouquets hellebores were the star of the garden.  Booths at Christmas markets offered colorful pots of white hellebores.  Garden center shelves held terra cotta planters with groupings of hellebores in rich wine colors and sometimes double blooms!   On walks in my daughter’s neighborhood, I saw them planted under trees or combined with miniature evergreen shrubs in window boxes.  Giving a hostess or friend a potted hellebore during the Christmas season is giving the gift of blessing and protection.  It is thought cutting the flowers will negate their special influence and benefits.

hellebore a ruby toned orientalis
hellebore a ruby toned orientalis

     H. orientalis or Lenton Rose is the other familiar member of the family, and the kind that I grow.  In past times, the flowers of this hellebore were small, drooping downward, and often muddy white or washed out colors.  Breeders have been selecting and cross-breeding over the decades to improve the flower size, range of colors, and to improve the flower angle so it can be seen more easily.  Today’s hellebores are a delight to behold.  Those in my garden begin blooming in March, and the flowers are usually still visible in July!  Plus the leathery, deep green foliage is tough, deer resistant, and lasts nearly year-round.  It has become one of my favorite plants for deep shade.  I started with the plugs of a mixed variety called “Royal Heritage.”  I couldn’t wait for them to start blooming to see what colors would appear.  I planted them in clumps in the Enchanted Forest, and in a protected, deeply shaded spot on the north side of my gazebo.  In their second late winter, I found white blooms, pink blooms, white blooms with pinkish spots, rose blooms, and a few deeper burgundy ones.  I let them stay on the plants, and was delighted the following spring when an abundance of seedlings began to appear under the adult plants.  These were quickly potted, or moved to other spots in the shade garden.   These plants are easy to grow, provide so much interest, and are seemingly indestructible.  Needless to say, I plan to increase the number of hellebores in my gardens.

          There are several other species of hellebore that are available from specialty growers, but not readily found in the marketplace.

Here are the varieties that we expect to have available at the farm:

H. orientalis “Blue Lady”-very showy up-facing flowers of lovely lavender-blue in late winter, early spring.  18”
H. orientalis “Pink Lady”-2” white flowers are blushed with pink and rose shades.
H. orientalis “Red Lady”-Various shades of red, and fairly upward facing.
H. orientalis “Sympathy”-white with pink spots
H. orientalis “Royal Heritage”-a hybrid strain with a wide range of colors including purple, near-black, white, pale green, yellow, rose, pink or red.  24”