Wednesday, March 17, 2010

a good day to be GREEN

Spring is upon us. Everyday, driving around town, I notice the new blooms of daffodils, crocus, cherry trees, and witch-hazel. But the only thing blooming in my garden right now is Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten Rose. This is one of my favorite perennials. It is beautiful, evergreen, versatile, durable, hardy, and above all else, extremely low-maintenance. What more can you ask for in a perennial?

I was first introduced to this awesome plant by Dr. Allan Armitage, while a student at UGA. He is one of the foremost perennial plant experts and a big proponent of Hellebores. While I call most plants by their botanical (genus) names, it is rare that most people (non-horticulture-types) would do the same. The Hellebore, I’ve found, is one of the exceptions to this rule. Another interesting thing about Hellebores is that the blooming part of the plant is not actually a ‘flower’ or ‘petals’ at all, rather they are sepals, or modified leaves.

There are generally two species of Hellebores available at retail garden centers: Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose), and Helleborus foetidus (Stinking Hellebore). Helleborus orientalis is the only one in my garden, so that’s what I’m talking about when I say ‘Hellebore’. However, H. foetidus is a lovely perennial in its own right with many of the same characteristics, but having finer leaf texture. [Also, I don’t find that it particularly smells bad and I’m afraid its common name may turn people away from a perfectly good plant.]

An evergreen perennial, Hellebores can form clumps of dark green, coarse foliage with blooms reaching 18”. There size increases over time, but I generally think of them as 12” tall perennials. Hellebores do well in full shade and full sun. However, the best balance of foliage and blooms probably occurs in a partial shade environment. Full sun exposure produces prolific blooming, but can scorch the edges of leaves. Hellebores will become quite drought tolerant once established, but prefer regularly moist soils.

Obviously there is a connection between the common name and the bloom time, Lent. It’s a great time to have something blooming in the garden since everyone I know is incredibly anxious for spring right now. Hellebores do not have very showy flowers, but the bloom is so beautiful and intricate, I find myself on hands and knees trying to get a better look. The true species has a creamy white-pink bloom that faces slightly downward and can have darker-hued splotching or fading on the interior of the sepals.

Hellebores have been cross-bred so many times that there is a kaleidoscope of color options to choose from. Blooms range from white, green, pink, purple, and everything in between. Sometimes there will be different colored-blooms on the same plant. Newer hybrids have created more compact and upright blooming varieties such as ‘Ivory Prince’, which is becoming very popular in the trade. The Hellebores in my garden bloom shades of pink, from rosy-pink to a purple-pink, the richness of which is hard to find elsewhere. Although gorgeous, this darker color does not stand out in the garden as well as the lighter blooming varietals.

I use Hellebores in my garden as accents in the perennial border alongside ferns, epimediums, and gingers. But they can make excellent groundcovers as well. They are highly effective when planted en masse for a bold flower display in late winter and a carpet of lush foliage throughout the year. The only maintenance I perform is occasionally removing scorched leaves in late summer/fall and spring fertilization when I fertilize the planting bed, that’s it!

I’ve been told (and have witnessed this in Dr. Armitage’s garden) that hellebores reproduce from seed eagerly. I have not yet experienced this in my own garden, but I remain hopeful; mainly because they are one of the more expensive perennials to purchase. Hellebores are native to Europe and Asia, but they will not displace our native species, so I advise planting as many as possible if you like what you read. I find Hellebores available for purchase year-round but I suggest buying them now, so you can see the flower color.

On a side note, the 6 Hollyhock seedlings are still surviving in the greenhouse and at least 3 plants appear to have over-wintered in my garden. This would be reason enough to celebrate but lucky for me it’s also St. Patrick’s Day! Happy Gardening!

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