Hellebores for Late Winter Color
By: Mike Darcy
It has been unseasonably cold here in the Pacific Northwest. In Portland (OR), we have had temperatures down in the teens, which is not the norm. To make matters worse, we have had an extended period of time when the temperature did not get above freezing. The ground is very dry, which causes additional stress on plants when the ground is frozen. Walking out into my garden this morning, I must say it is looking very bleak. The Eugene area has had some snow, which is a good insulator that offers cold protection for plants, but the Portland area has not had any significant snow. Our ground is bare and dry. Nonetheless, the hellebores are beginning to show themselves.
However, we have many benefits to be living and gardening here, and one is the hellebore (Helleborus spp.), which I call a “winter gem”. Here is a plant that can withstand the cold, wind and rain and not only survive, but thrive. It is also one plant that I have heard deer will not eat. Hellebores were very popular in the Midwest in the early 1900’s, and then their popularity diminished. In the early part of this century, they made a resurgence and have become increasingly popular in Pacific Northwest gardens. Plants are being bred to have stronger stems and an ever increasing palette of color.
Hellebores are tough perennial plants, and their most outstanding attribute is that they bloom when not many other plants do, though their evergreen foliage is also a nice added bonus. As I write this column in early December, there are flower buds beginning to show their color on some of my plants. I have seen hellebores even blooming in the snow in January. A particular variety that has been outstanding in my garden, called ‘Jacob Classic’, is from the Gold Collection®. This is an early bloomer with white flowers that tend to face forward instead of downward, as many Hellebores do. It will begin flowering in January and continue for at least two months. It makes an excellent container plant, especially by an entry way as the early blossoms provide winter cheer.
Another group of hellebores is the Winter Jewel™ Series from Terra Nova Nurseries, and these provide some bloom colors that are relatively new for hellebores. Two new hellebores that I have in my garden that have performed well and provide some striking winter color are ‘Painted Doubles’ and ‘Golden Sunrise’. As the name implies, ‘Painted Doubles’ has double flowers that are dark pink with a white edge that looks painted on. The cheerful ‘Golden Sunrise’ has ruby-edged single flowers that turn slightly downward to reveal the soft yellow back side of the petals.
Hellebores like to be planted in a soil that is rich in compost such as Black Gold®Garden Compost. They also perform better when given some shade from the hot afternoon sun. Hellebores make excellent plants for under a large tree where they can benefit from the filtered light that falls from between the branches. Once established, they can become a permanent part of the garden and require very little maintenance.
Hellebores aside, many Pacific Northwest gardeners successfully grow plants that are considered marginally winter hardy. With our past relatively mild winters, many have survived with minimal protection. This winter is sure to prove which plants are marginally winter hardy and which are not. In my garden, I have a Gunnera tinctoria that I consider marginally winter hardy. Luckily, several weeks ago I mounded the crown with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, and then on top of that, I placed the huge Gunnera leaves that I had removed from the plant. The Gunnera leaves will help keep the conditioner from blowing away in the wind. Hopefully this method will provide the insulation the plant needs to survive. I have done this in winters past, and it has worked.
With weather as cold as it’s been, there is not much a gardener can do to protect plants without a protective greenhouse or sun room, though I always have a few tender plants that I put on a garden cart and take into my unheated garage. (My prediction for 2014 is that garden centers will see a surge in sales when spring finally arrives with gardeners buying plants to replace those that couldn’t take the cold.) In the meantime, get into the spirit of this season with a visit to you garden center, and check out the holiday displays which are certain to include a few choice hellebores.