Distinctive, long-lived plants that add color to the garden for several months in winter and spring, hellebores are also appreciated for their attractive foliage. Each leaf consists of a long leafstalk ending in large, leathery leaflets grouped together like fingers on an outstretched hand.
All hellebores form tight clumps of many growing points, but species differ in their manner of growth. Some have stems that rise from the ground, with leaves all along their length; stems produce flowers at their tip in their second year, then die to the ground as new stems emerge to replace them. In other species, leaves are not carried on tall stems but arise directly from growing points at ground level; separate (typically leafless) flower stems spring from the same points.
Flowers are usually cup or bell shaped (those of H. niger are saucer shaped), either outward facing or drooping; they consist of a ring of petal-like sepals ranging in color from white and green through pink and red to deep purple (rarely yellow). Flowers of all hellebores persist beyond the bloom periods listed below, gradually turning green. Blossoms are attractive in arrangements: After you cut them, slice the bottom inch of the stems lengthwise or seal cut ends by searing over a flame or immersing in boiling water for a few seconds. Then place in cold water. Or simply float flowers in a bowl of water.
Mass hellebores under high-branching trees, on north or east side of walls, or in beds. They are not damaged by deer or rodents.
In addition to the following, a half-dozen or more other species are sometimes available. Species here have leafy stems unless otherwise noted.
H. argutifolius (H. corsicus). CORSICAN HELLEBORE. Zones MS, LS; USDA 7-8. From Corsica, Sardinia. Erect or sprawling, to 23 ft. tall and wide. Substantial enough to use as a small shrub. Blue-green, 6- to 9-in. leaves divided into three sharply toothed leaflets. Leafy stems carry clusters of 2-in., pale green flowers from winter into spring. More sun tolerant than other hellebores. Two compact selections with white-marbled leaves are 'Janet Starnes' (with a touch of pink in new foliage) and 'Pacific Frost'. 'Silver Lace' has blue-gray foliage overlaid with a silver lace pattern. Moderate water.
H. x ballardiae. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. This cross between H. niger and H. lividus grows to 11 ft. high and 2 ft. wide, with 2-in.-wide outward-facing blooms on deep red stems. 'Cinnamon Snow' has dark green leaves and white flowers with warm rose and cinnamon tones. 'HGC Pink Frost' has gray-green leaves with silvery veins; its flowers combine pale pink and rose. Regular water.
H. x ericsmithii. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Hybrid of complex parentage. Grows 11 ft. high and 1 ft. wide, with dark green, pale-veined leaves and large sprays of pale pink or white flowers, each up to 4 in. across. Blooms face out, not down. Examples include choice 'Ivory Prince' and 'Pink Beauty'. 'Monte Cristo' is a heavy bloomer with blue-gray leaves and cream- colored flowers with a peachy rose blush. Regular water.
H. foetidus. BEAR'S-FOOT HELLEBORE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-9. From western and central Europe. To 212 ft. high and wide, the stems clothed with dark green leaves divided into seven to ten narrow, leathery leaflets to 8 in. long. Blooms from winter to spring, bearing clusters of inch-wide light green flowers with purplish red edges. Plant parts are malodorous if crushed or bruised (don't smell bad otherwise). Self-sows freely where adapted. Moderate water. 'Green Giant' is bigger than the basic species, forming a 212-ft. clump of green foliage that is topped at bloom time with 1-ft.-tall clusters of green bells. 'Piccadilly' has whitish green blossoms and dark green leaves tinged with reddish purple. 'Pontarlier' has toothed green leaves and large clusters of light green, long-lasting flowers. Wester Flisk strain has stems, flower stems, and leafstalks infused with purplish red, with the color extending into leaf bases.
H. x hybridus. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Leaves have no obvious stems. These hybrid plants generally resemble principal parent H. orientalis, but flower color range has been extended and superior parents selected for seed production. Some are sold under the breeder's name, such as Ballard's Group, which has flowers in several colors. Others are sold as color strains, such as Piccadilly Farm (chartreuse, dark purple, variegated, pink, and white), Sunshine selections (white, pink, yellow, or red flowers), Royal Heritage strain (pink, purple, maroon, or white blooms over vigorous foliage), and Winter Queen mix (white, pink, maroon, or spotted flowers). Others are grouped according to form, such as the Winter Jewels group, which has double flowers in many colors. The Spring Promise series includes uniform growers that bloom from a young age, with single and double flowers in a wide variety of colors; 'Rebecca', with single, dark plum blooms, is particularly striking. 'Walberton's Rosemary', a vigorous grower resulting from a cross between H. x hybridus and H. niger, is a heavy producer of outward-facing, rosy pink flowers that age to a darker salmon-pink; prefers a bit more sun than others listed here. All take moderate to regular water.
H. lividus. MAJORCAN HELLEBORE. Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9. From Majorca. To 112 ft. high and twice as wide. Leaves resemble those of H. argutifolius but lack noticeable teeth and have purplish undersides and a network of pale veins above. Winter-to-spring flowers are 1142 in. wide, pale green washed with pinkish purple; carried in clusters of up to ten. 'Pink Marble' has pink flowers on rosy red stems. Leaves of 'White Marble' have pronounced silvery white veins. Moderate water.
H. niger. CHRISTMAS ROSE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From Europe. Leaves have no obvious stems. Elegant plant to 1 ft. tall, 112 ft. wide, blooming from December into spring. Lustrous dark green leaves are divided into seven to nine lobes with a few large teeth; they seem to rise directly from the soil. White, 2-in. flowers appear singly or in groups of two or three on a stout stem about the same height as the foliage clump. Blooms turn pinkish with age. 'HCG Jacob' is compact at 68 in. tall, with lots of early flowers that open white and fade to pink in cooler regions, greenish white in warmer areas. 'HGC Josef Lemper' is vigorous and upright, with light green leaves and an early and long bloom period. 'White Magic' and 'Potter's Wheel' are large-flowered selections. 'Nell Lewis' is a vigorous strain from North Carolina. All need more shade than other hellebores. Provide alkaline soil and regular water. Plants of H. orientalis are often mislabeled Christmas rose.
H. orientalis. LENTEN ROSE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From Greece, Turkey, Caucasus. Leaves have no obvious stems. Much like H. niger in growth but more tolerant of warm-winter climates. Basal leaves with 5 to 11 sharply toothed leaflets; branched flowering stems to 1 ft. tall, with leaf- like bracts at branching points. Blooms in late winter and spring; flowers are 24 in. wide, in colors including white, pink, purplish, cream, and greenish, often spotted with deep purple. Easier to transplant than other hellebores. A widely variable plant, but all forms are attractive. Encourage self-sowing and keep the colors you like. Hybridizes freely with many other species; many nursery plants may be hybrids. Regular water.
H. xsternii. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Hybrid between H. argutifolius and H. lividus, with bluish green foliage netted with white or cream. Greenish, 1- to 2-in. flowers suffused with pink bloom from winter to spring. Variable from seed. 'Silver Dollar' has large, heavily silvered leaves and comes true from seed. Moderate water.
H. viridis. GREEN HELLEBORE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. To 112 ft. tall and wide. Graceful bright green leaves are divided into 7 to 11 leaflets; leafy stems bear 1- to 2-in.-wide flowers in pure green to yellowish green, sometimes with purple on inside. Blooms from winter through late spring. H. v. occidentalis has smaller blossoms and larger leaves. Regular water.
Plant in good, well-drained soil amended with plenty of organic matter. Plants prefer soil that is somewhat alkaline but will also grow well in neutral to slightly acid conditions (H. niger is an exception; it must have alkaline soil). Feed once or twice a year. Don't disturb hellebores once planted; they resent moving and may take 2 or more years to re-establish. If well sited, however, they may self-sow, and young seedlings can be transplanted in early spring. Offspring may not resemble the parent exactly, but all are attractive. Remove spent flowers when they become unattractive. For H. argutifolius and H. foetidus, cut flowering stems back to ground level after blooms fade. Black spot is a common fungal disease of H. x hybridus that can be minimized by removing all foliage in winter before the flowers push up. Do not compost these leaves, as they will spread the spores.