Hellebores for Fall

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

bearsfoot hellebore at Carolyn's Shade GardensBearsfoot hellebore growing in my manure pit wall

Hybrid hellebores, the variety of hellebore that most gardeners grow with the big, nodding, showy flowers in beautiful colors, are generally not fall-blooming plants.  They give depth to the fall garden through their evergreen foliage, but they are not thought of for flowers (except a rogue hybrid bloom now and then).  In the mid-Atlantic, they bloom as early as January, but generally start to flower in February.  But there are a few species (as opposed to hybrid) hellebores that flower in fall, and my late fall garden has been much enhanced by their addition.

foliage of bearsfoot hellebore at Carolyn's Shade GardensWinter foliage of bearsfoot hellebore

If I had to choose a favorite hellebore, and I have almost every species and hundreds of hybrids, I would pick the bearsfoot hellebore, Helleborus foetidus.  It wouldn’t be for its charming Latin name: foetidus speaks for itself.  And not for its alternate common name, stinking hellebore, though it doesn’t deserve that name when you have to mangle the leaves to elicit a smell.  Rather I would choose it for its substantial 2′ evergreen presence, like a miniature rhododendron in the garden.  And for the interesting spidery texture of its always pristine dark green leaves.  But mostly for how its chartreuse bell-like buds and flowers perch atop its beautiful foliage from November into May.

buds emerging from bearsfoot hellebore at Carolyn's Shade GardensFall buds emerging from bearsfoot hellebore

Bearsfoot hellebore grows in part to full shade and is the only hellebore that I am aware of that likes slightly moist soil.  That being said, my grove—if they are happy, they spread—received no additional water for the entire summer of 2010 when we had the worst heat and drought I have ever experienced.  Bearsfoot and all my other hellebores came through with flying colors.  I grow all my hellebores with plenty of compost.

buds of bearsfoot hellebore at Carolyn's Shade GardensFall buds of bearsfoot hellebore

Bearsfoot hellebore in full bloom

Two other fall-blooming hellebores are superior selections from the true Christmas rose, the species Helleborus niger.  Christmas roses are beautiful plants and well worth growing for their outward-facing, starry, pure white flowers and elegant blue-green leaves.  But the straight species is sadly mis-named.  In the mid-Atlantic, it blooms in March  at the earliest when Christmas has long past.  However, the amazing plant breeders at Heuger in Germany who have produced the superior Helleborus Gold Collection have developed two Christmas roses that bloom from November into May.

Christmas rose 'Jacob' at Carolyn's Shade GardensChristmas rose ‘Jacob’

The first, HGC ‘Jacob’, is a compact and refined plant 6 to 8″ tall with graceful, smooth dark green leaves.  It starts blooming in mid-November (it was a little late this year) with copious 2 to 3″ white flowers maturing to rose, and continues to produce buds into May.  The second is HGC ‘Josef Lemper’, a 10″ plant with 3 to 3 1/2″ flowers and larger, lighter green leaves.  It  comes into bloom about two weeks later than ‘Jacob’ and also continues to May.

Christmas rose 'Jacob' at Carolyn's Shade GardensChristmas rose ‘Jacob’ coming into bloom in November

Christmas rose 'Josef Lemper' at Carolyn's Shade GardensEmerging buds of Christmas rose ‘Josef Lemper’

Christmas roses are a little more finicky than hybrids.  Like most hellebores, they prefer well-drained sites with plenty of organic matter.  But they have a definite preference for the edges of beds in part shade as opposed to sunnier or shadier spots.  My best stand is in an open area shaded by 100′ trees on a steep slope.  I have never found that they needed supplemental lime as the books suggest.

Helleborus dumetorum at Carolyn's Shade GardensHelleborus dumetorum

I am throwing in the final fall-blooming hellebore more for curiosity sake than for its ornamental value.  Over the years, I have collected most of the hellebore species.  I have tried  to get them from more than one source so I could compare them.  The variation is amazing, but no more than hellebore aficionados like Graham Rice will tell you to expect.  One plant I have collected is H. dumetorum—it’s so obscure it doesn’t have a common name.  Its small green flowers and ordinary leaves do not endear it to gardeners.  However, I am including a photograph of one of my plants here because every year it blooms in late October and continues to spring.

For more information on hellebores, I highly recommend noted hellebore expert Graham Rice’s website.  The book The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman is excellent.  It includes amazing pictures showing the variation within the different species.  I will add both sources permanently to my sidebar so you can always find them.  If you really want all the details about hellebores, try Hellebores by Brian Mathew (Alpine Garden Society).  It is out-of-print but available at horticultural libraries, including the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Carolyn

This is part one in a series of articles on hellebores, one of the specialties of my nursery.  Here are links to all six articles:

Part One        Hellebores for Fall

Part Two       An Ode to Seed Strain Hellebores

Part Three   Christmas Rose: The Perfect Hellebore

Part Four      Dividing Hybrid Hellebores

Part Five       The Sex Lives of Hellebores

Part Six          Double Hellebores

Part Seven   Cutting Back Hellebores

Note: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.

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33 Responses to “Hellebores for Fall”

  1. I like the snow!! Laurie

  2. Jim Davis Says:

    Dear Carolyn,

    This is a beautiful article. Your entire web site is great. Once you got into it, you’ve gone all the way! Congratulations.

    Do hellebores prefer an acidic, neutral or alkaline soil, since several of mine are turning yellow, and look like they might need iron.

    Warmly, jim

    • Thanks for your kind words Jim. All the books say that hellebores prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soil. However, I have found that hybrid hellebores thrive anywhere as long as the soil is well-drained. I have very healthy hellebores growing under pine trees. I have never had any plants turn yellow. If your plants are turning yellow now, then it may just be a stage of dormancy. Wait until the spring to do anything. If it starts to happen then, I would fertilize them with an organic fertilizer like fish emulsion. Carolyn

  3. This is a great post on Hellebores. They are often under-used and you show why they should be in many gardens. I love Christmas roses but do not have proper conditions to grow then correctly.

    I too like the snow, a WordPress add on I guess.

  4. Dear Carolyn, Lots of information here, thank you. I started adding hellebores to my shade garden about a year ago and absolutely love them. I don’t have any fall blooming ones though. I intend adding to my collection in the spring. The Christmas rose ‘Jacob’ is very pretty. Pamela x

    • Hi Pamela, ‘Jacob’ is the cultivar I prefer of the two fall-blooming Christmas roses. ‘Praecox’ blooms later, in early winter, but has spectacular flowers. You are in for a wonderful experience if you are getting started with hellebores. Carolyn

  5. Great post, Carolyn! I love helleborus foetidus, it looks good even now when other plants got frozen.

  6. Mildred Lanin Says:

    I’m not ale to do as much in my garden as in the past, but compliment you for your wonderful website. It definitely helps me to continue to fantasize about what my garden looks like. Thank you.

    • Hi Mildred, It so great to hear from my customers that they are enjoying my articles. It is a lot of work, and I like to know that there are people out there benefiting from it. I am especially glad that it helps you enjoy the garden from inside. Carolyn

  7. Barbara Neswald Says:

    I really enjoy your photography, and think the site is beautiful, and appreciate the bibliography… I learn a lot!
    thank you.

  8. Well you answered my question as to why my stinking hellebores died this summer. I got some from a friend and planted then in dry shade (during a drought); where they promptly died. I plan to go get more and plant them somewhere moist now thanks to your info. I love those and don’t have any right now. I did have luck with a Christmas rose. They are so beautiful when they bloom but mine doesn’t seem to be spreading. Maybe someday. I love hellebores and you have some really wonderful ones. Even that little green one.

    • Hi Tina, Bearsfoot hellebore likes to grow between rocks and in low parts of my garden. I find that Christmas roses don’t produce seedlings unless you have quite a few of them planted in one place. Then they can be prolific. I am glad you commented on the little green one—it tries so hard. Carolyn

  9. I adore hellebore so thoroughly enjoyed this informative post,, Carolyn.

  10. I found this post extremely helpful. Thanks, Carolyn for the great info, photos and links. I love the outward facing flowers of ‘Jacob’. It’s so good to not have to lay down flat on the ground to see and photograph those beautiful ‘faces’ 🙂

    • Thanks Keri. All Christmas rose flowers face out and most hybrids nod. Even though you have to lean over and tip up the hybrid flowers, I wouldn’t have it otherwise–it feels like opening a gift when you turn the face up and every flower is different. Carolyn

  11. Mary Stamper Says:

    I just bought a Helleborus Niger “Jacob” in full bloom in a pot. It was sold by a well-known food store as a christmas plant. My garden is pretty frozen right now, so it may need to stay in the pot until spring. I noticed that some of the lower leaves are starting to yellow a bit. I have it in an East window, away from any heat sources. Can you give suggestions as to how I might keep it healthy indoors in a pot until spring? I’m sure the nursery potting soil is quite different than what it will get in the garden. It doesn’t seem overly wet. Not sure if it should be fertilzed at this time of year or not. Should the whole pot be put outside and perhaps buried in leave or compost until spring?

    • Hi Mary, I haven’t seen Christmas roses sold as Christmas plants—that’s the way they sell them in Germany. What store was it? I don’t think it will do very well over the long tern inside. I would acclimate it outside in a protected spot on your porch and then plant it in the ground. Flowers that are all the way out could be damaged but the buds will continue to bloom. In the alternative you could keep it in an unheated part of your garage where it gets some light and water it occasionally. Then plant it as soon as the ground thaws. Carolyn

      • Mary Stamper Says:

        Thanks, Carolyn. Whole Foods in Wynnwood has/had beautful plants in full bloom for the outrageously low price of 8.99. I figured I had to chance it for that price. I’ll move it outside to my porch and keep an eye on the places that thaw first.

      • That is an incredible price and well worth the risk. You should get another plant and do an experiment with one inside and one out. Carolyn

  12. Mary Stamper Says:

    I’ll consider getting another one if there are any left. I’ve moved mine to the porch as you suggested. When the snow clears, I’ll sit it in the garden.

  13. Carolyn, I jsut bought a little plant of Helleborus Niger, my first . Is mostly for photos it, but with your posts I am curious about growing them, I ‘ll follow your sugestions and we’ll see what happens. i’ll be posting some images in my blog. Thanks for all the infos. Best, Lula

  14. Hi author with passion! i’m so excited and i add “Like” (facebook) to carolynsshadegardens.com

  15. Can these flowers be grown in central Florida?

  16. […] weather. As I mentioned before, my favorite place to read up about shade loving plants is on Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. Carolyn has written articles on Hellebores that contain a wealth of information and inspiration. […]

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