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MINTER: Helleborus heck of an alternative to poinsettias

Helleborus is one alternative to poinsettias at Christmas, writes gardening columnist Brian Minter. - Submitted photo
Helleborus is one alternative to poinsettias at Christmas, writes gardening columnist Brian Minter.
— image credit: Submitted photo

Poinsettias have a long and interesting history, becoming the number one indoor potted plant grown in the world today. The many new varieties and colours produced each year keep them at the forefront as a Christmas season plant. In the Northern Hemisphere, however, they are a very long crop for growers and require a great deal of labor and energy to produce. A huge amount of research and breeding work has been done to develop new varieties that not only finish in cooler temperatures, but are also more durable both indoors and out.

For years now, I’ve been on a quest to find alternate cool season plants that could be an alternate to poinsettias and still have a connection to many of our Christmas traditions. The Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is certainly one of the top candidates. Over the past few years, greenhouse growers have been refining their production timing and forcing them into bloom at slightly higher temperatures in order to have those beautiful helleborus blossoms open for the month of December. In zones 6 and above they work well as an outdoor garden or patio container plant, but in zones 5 and lower they need more protection. The challenge is to find a room cool enough for them to last indoors.

In Europe, winter blooming hellebores have been very much a traditional Christmas gift for some time now. The Heuger family has been at the forefront of new breeding to develop better early winter blooming varieties that could be enjoyed over the holiday season. The concept was to develop a series of plants that would naturally bloom in progression from November through March. If they were gently forced into bloom at slightly higher temperatures, they could provide a long lasting flowering plant that could be enjoyed indoors then set back out into the garden to be enjoyed for many years to come.

Out of this research came the “Helleborus Gold Collection” which displayed many new characteristics. This collection all bloomed on first year plants if they were started at the right time. Second, they provided lots of blooms that produced over a long period of time and third, the blossoms were all forward facing for a far more striking appearance.

Some of the first varieties have now been on the market for a year or so, with many more about to be introduced this winter and next spring. Helleborus niger ‘Jacob’ (zone 4) has pure white flowers with a slight pink blush in cooler weather. I love their deep burgundy stems and the blossoms have a faint perfume, which makes them ideal as cut flowers. It is one of the earliest blooming hellebores and has the traditional glossy deep green foliage.

Helleborus niger ‘Joseph Lemper’ (zone 4), one of the very earliest to bloom, has very large pure white blooms that appear slightly turned, facing upwards. As the blooms mature, they turn an attractive green. The foliage is very attractive and a rich, dark green.

Helleborus niger ‘Pink Frost’ provides a nice variation with its burgundy and white buds that burst open to a lovely soft pink which darkens with age. As the blooms open in sequence, beautiful shading, from white to pink and red, takes place. Even if it never bloomed, its scented deep green leaves, unique vein display and marbled sheen rivals any evergreen perennial.

Some of the new varieties being released this year are H. n. ‘Cinnamon Snow’ (zone 5), with its creamy white flowers touched with rose and cinnamon. The buds also have a red accent and as the blooms open, they create quite a show. The leaves are very scented and rich green, providing a nice contrast to the blooms.

Helleborus ‘Merlin’ is a very striking and unusually beautiful pink that ages nicely to deep burgundy. I love its dark green foliage with lighter veins and rich plum coloured stems.

Helleborus ‘Mahogany Snow’ with its very large creamy flowers and unique light pink reverse ages to a lovely mahogany pink. I like its reddish stems, very compact habit and great garden performance.

You are going to see the first major release of these new hellebores across the country this holiday season, so do watch for them in your favourite garden centre. Consider giving a collection of several different varieties.

Brian Minter is owner of Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.

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