Enjoy winter’s reliable blooming plants

by How Does Your Garden Grow? By Sharon Daniels

It’s winter, but Hellebores are beginning to bloom through the snow.

Any bloom is welcome in winter, but in this difficult year it’s especially heartening to see Hellebore flowers start to show.

Many of us watch for the first crocus but Hellebores are reliable as very early flowers. They are commonly known as Christmas rose or Lenten rose because of the time when they begin their season of bloom. All are perennial plants and all are easy to grow.

When other plants are sleeping through snow, blown leaves or a layer of mulch, Hellebores display flowers of dusty pink, mauve, white, light green/nearly chartreuse, or plum. They reliably display for three months or longer.

My oldest type has leathery leaves divided into seven or more leaflets which are evergreen and attractive all year. This one often is known as “stinking Hellebore” but I have not detected any odor in the 20-plus years they have been in my garden. I understand there may be an odor if stalks and flowers are crushed. These flowers are pale green.

These plants obviously like my shaded landscape as they self-sow freely. I have shared dozens of mature plants, and literally hundreds of little ones sprout every year under each plant’s umbrella of leaves.

I use the word “flower” but they actually are bracts, which is how they remain on the plants for several months. You already are familiar with poinsettia’s red or white bracts, which we think of as flowers.

The more colorful Hellebores bloom between December and early spring, depending on the severity of winter. I cleared leaves from plant bases several weeks ago and found fat buds at the base of nearly every one, ready to open.

A white one started blooming in mid-January. Even when this plant’s bloom stalks droop under weight of snow, they become erect when it melts.

To tell them apart, look at the leaves. Christmas rose leaflets have just a few small teeth; Lenten rose has many small teeth on leaflet margins. The colorful flowers may have spots or splashes of deep purple, and there are some double varieties. My prettiest one is double, almost yellowish.

All Hellebores are evergreen, so even in recent snows I see dozens of green clumps above the snow.

It’s best to plant them where they can stay, as they are slow to re-establish when moved or divided. My first ones, passalong plants from a fellow Master Gardener, didn’t bloom until the third year. All Hellebores have about the same habit.

Combine these attractive early plants with azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns, ginger or primroses. They appreciate good soil amended with plenty of organic material.

Sharon Daniels is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener.