MINTER: Brighten winter gardens with helleborus
A big missing piece in modern gardens is the amazing perennial family of winter and spring blooming helleborus. Never in their long history has there been the breadth and depth of varieties, colours and flower forms to lift and brighten our gardens.
Beginning in December, with the most well known variety, helleborus niger (better known as the Christmas rose) and ending in May with the huge family of helleborus orientalis (or lenten rose), they provide five months of continuous colour. In our own gardens we have truly come to rely more and more on these wonderful plants for early colour.
The new gold collection of helleborus, introduced from the Heuger family in Holland, has opened the door for January to March colour as we’ve never had before. These hellebores offer myriads of blooms over an extended period of time and their flowers face upwards so you can see and enjoy them in the dark of winter.
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 a very attractive rich dark green.
Helleborus niger pink prost 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.
Another new jewel is H. Merlin, a rather compact soft pink bloomer with beautiful mottled silver and green foliage.
The orientalis family is so huge and diverse it’s difficult to classify many of the varieties, but the Lady series is quite interesting with its distinctive cupped flowers. White lady is very unique with its very dark markings on pure white blooms. Yellow lady is creamy yellow with dark red markings and both the red lady and the blue lady have good solid colours of red and bluish dark purple.
Today there are many hybridized crosses which are truly spectacular. From the deep blacks, slate blues, deep yellows to the apricots and the bi-colour picotees, there are some real head turners. Try to purchase them in bloom to see their true colours — picture tags seldom do them justice.
The double flowering varieties, which were quite rare and expensive, have now become far more available and far less costly. The pure white Mrs. Betty Ranicar and the double pink party dress are quite dramatic and real treasures in any garden. The new double jewel series from Terra Nova breeders in Oregon are really something special. The most impressive to me is a rich double pink called cotton candy that flowers very early and holds those big double blooms for weeks and weeks. Golden lights has big double blooms that vary from pure yellow to yellow with delightful red edges on the petals. Onyx odyssey is a rich purple-black that catches the eye. As does rose quartz, a picotee, with a coloration of white edged rose petals. They are all stunning.
In spite of all these exciting new varieties the old standbys, like helleborus foetidus with its shade loving chartreuse blooms and contrasting, dark foliage, and H. atrorubens, an unusually early flowering purple, have truly withstood the test of time and are garden stalwarts.
Once established, virtually all helleborus are very easy to care for and maintain. Cold blustery winters and long rainy falls can often spoil the old foliage just as you see new growth and flower buds showing. Never be afraid to cut unsightly foliage back and just leave a magnificent cluster of flowers breaking out of the ground like a fresh bouquet. Most varieties prefer morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled shade. All need well drained humusy, barky soil to get established and perform well. Deer don’t like them and leave them alone. The only problem is their addiction – once you start collecting a few in your garden – you’re hooked!