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Hellebore Care

Hellebores are wonderful, reliable stars of the winter garden, and they just keep getting better, both as long-lived plants and as breeders introduce new varieties. Originally from Eurasia, they are in the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family along with columbines. Hellebores (Helleborus spp.) are most commonly called either Christmas Roses (H. niger) or Lenten Roses (H. orientalis/hybridus), because those species bloom near those Christian holidays with flowers mimicking single roses. H. niger flowers are usually white, face downward, and look wonderful in a raised container or on a slope, while new H. orientalis and hybrids raise their flowers outward in shades from amber to purple black with speckles, dark eyes, and veined foliage. Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius) has distinctively toothed palmate foliage and pale chartreuse flowers. These easy-care perennials prefer light to dappled shade. Their hardiness ranges from USDA zones 5-9. Foliage is usually evergreen. Many are toxic to animals.

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H. niger flowers are usually white, face downward, and look wonderful in a raised container or on a slope, while new H. orientalis and hybrids raise their flowers outward in shades from amber to purple black with speckles, dark eyes, and veined foliage. Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius) has distinctively toothed palmate foliage and pale chartreuse flowers. These easy-care perennials prefer light to dappled shade. Their hardiness ranges from USDA zones 5-9. Foliage is usually evergreen. Many are toxic to animals.

Planting Hellebores

Choose a partial- to full-shade location ideally with moist, loamy soil and a pH from 5.5 to 6.5. Some exceptions: They can handle dry shade under deciduous trees with enough winter sun but will need extra watering getting established. If your soil is clay and more moisture-retentive it may allow plants to tolerate more sun. Christmas rose, H. niger, prefers more alkaline soil and may benefit with the addition of garden lime. Plant the crown at the same level as in its nursery pot. Hellebores increase slowly, creating an impressive root system and resent moving. If you wish to divide or move them, do so with care, in late winter/early spring. 

Watering Hellebores

While hellebores can be drought tolerant once established, it’s important to water consistently during the first two growing seasons to enable strong root development. In general, water heavily during spring and summer, cutting back in fall to prepare for winter dormancy. A good rule is to wet the soil at least one inch deep, at least once a week, more when it is very hot or dry. Potted hellebores will need watering more often than plants in-ground.

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Fertilizing Hellebores

Fertilize lightly with balanced or slow-release fertilizer or side-dress with compost and organic amendments. The best time to do this is in spring when new growth appears. If your soil test shows a pH under 7.0, add dolomitic lime for H. x hybridus. If a soil test shows your soil lacks magnesium, H. niger may also benefit from dolomitic lime. 

Pruning Hellebores

Hellebores need almost no pruning. Deadhead for neatness and if self-sowing is not desired. Remove older brown leaves in late winter/early spring to make room for new growth. Hellebores rarely need division, and don’t care for it much. If you wish to divide or move them, do so with care, in late winter/early spring. 

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Caring For Hellebores in Pots

Choose a pot with at least six inches of depth to allow for root development, and an appropriate width for your mature plant. Look for one that will not become overly hot, as roots dislike intense heat. Fill with a well-draining, high-quality soil mix and place in partial- to full shade. In general, water heavily during spring and summer, cutting back in fall to prepare for winter dormancy. A good rule is to wet the soil at least one inch deep, at least once a week, more when it is very hot or dry. Potted hellebores will need watering more often than plants in-ground. Mulching is recommended to keep the roots cool.

Winter Care for Hellebores

In fall, water less often, and apply aged manure and/or compost. Wait to clean up old leaves until late winter. If you want to encourage seedlings to sprout, or you are in a colder edge of hellebore’s hardiness zones, mulch heavily.  Go around the crown without burying it. Remove older brown leaves in late winter/early spring to make room for new growth. This is also the time to carefully divide or transplant hellebores, although they may not like it, so keep the roots covered and watered throughout the process.

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Hellebore Care