Hellebores For Spring

Hellebores For Spring

Part of Ep. 1702 Think Green

Mark Dwyer, Director of Horticulture at Rotary Gardens in Janesville, introduces hellebore, a hardy, early-blooming, beautiful perennial.

Premiere date: Apr 29, 2009

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
We're at Rotary Gardens in Janesville.  This is one of the very earliest perennials to bloom here.  This is a hellebore.  It's part of a wonderful collection of plants.  Beautiful, unusual, and very early blooming.  I'm with the Director of Horticulture here, Mark Dwyer.  Mark, I've hesitated for many years to grow these because they're so early blooming, I assume they're very delicate.  That's not true at all, is it?

Mark:
It's actually the opposite, Shelley.  The hellebores have really come into their own the past ten years or so.  They've been around in the garden for many years, but as you alluded to, people had some concerns about them.

Shelley:
Yeah, we'll kill them!  They're one of the hardiest perennials for our climate, and also in a wide variety of soils.  But the early blooming nature, these specimens will start typically around March, and bloom well into April.  That bloom window can exceed five to six weeks.  When you think of other perennials blooming for a week or two, the impact has a longer range.

Shelley:
And the only downside I see so far, if that a lot of them tend to bloom hanging down like this.  So they're facing the ground.  At the same time, I think it gives it a real graceful look to this.

Mark:
That's a good point.  It looks very delicate.  They do arc over and face downward.  Some of that can be solved by positioning the plant on a retaining wall, or on a slope where you can actually look up toward the plant itself.

Shelley:
So you've got a number of them planted here on the hill.  Full sun or shade?

Mark:
Actually, not in full sun or in deep shade, but everything in between is fine.  They do prefer dappled sun.  They can take a wide range of soil conditions.

Shelley:
You said that, so what about watering?  Do they need a lot of moisture?

Mark:
Initially, for establishing it, watering is important.  But once it's established, they're very drought tolerant.  Particularly under tree roots, with an overhead deciduous canopy, they can compete with tree roots and do very well.

Shelley:
So very drought tolerant.  Because I look at a site like this and think there's a lot of plants that would be unhappy here.

Mark:
They'll do very fine.  The thing about it, is they very infrequently in need of division.  They can be in the ground a long time before they need any assistance.

Shelley:
How much is a long time?

Mark:
They're like peonies, 25 to 30 years.  You don't have to worry about it.

Shelley:
Oh, wow, so I should be planting more of these, not less.  Low maintenance, low water, low care.  That's the perfect kind of plant for anybody.

Mark:
Well, and once they're done blooming, even texturally speaking, they're wonderful in terms of a glossy leaf.  It has a great texture the part shade garden.  They'll stay evergreen through the winter, so there is some winter interest, assuming they're not buried in snow.

Shelley:
Then, what do you do, then?  Do you have to do anything to them as winter ends and they're getting ready to bloom?

Mark:
As the snow melts, you'll start to see growth as early as late February or early March.  Trim off the old foliage and let the new come up.  And you'll see blooms immediately.

Shelley:
Wow, okay, that's not much work at all.  This one is just beautiful.  Which one is this one?

Mark:
This is a species of hellebore called purpurescens.

Shelley:
I love the purple on the back of those flowers.

Mark:
It's beautiful.  It's one of the nice ones that again, will be long-lived in the garden.

Shelley:
Now, there are many choices, many shapes, sizes and varieties.

Mark:
There are.  And I think most commonly, people will run into what are called the hybrid hellebores, the orientalis types.  They come in a wide range of colors.

Shelley:
Is that what these are here?

Mark:
Yes, you can see different shades of pinks, whites, even into deep maroons.

Shelley:
Kind of a cream color, a yellow color over there.  They also look a little bit taller than the species variety.

Mark:
Typically, heights are under 20 inches, or so.

Shelley:
So they're never going to get carried away.

Mark:
They don't get real tall.  Although the clumps will eventually get wider.  It's important to note that the hellebores in general will reseed.

Shelley:
Okay.

Mark:
You'll see babies.  Now with the hybrids, it's important to note that those seeds aren't true to the original plant, so you'll get a wide hodgepodge of colors.

Shelley:
So it won't be true to the parent.  But have you ever seen colors you didn't like?

Mark:
Not at all.  We like all of them.

Shelley:
So, let them reseed.

Mark:
They're easy to re-locate at that point.

Shelley:
The species one, the purpurescens here, the babies from this, these are the babies right here, aren't they?

Mark:
Yes.

Shelley:
So they really reseed willingly.

Mark:
They do.  And in a site like this, those babies, particularly with the species hellebores will come true to form.  So they'll all be identical to the parent.

Shelley:
So we're going to get more of these beautiful little purple ones.

Mark:
Yeah.

Shelley:
Okay, just one other question.  Would you ever try something like this in a container?  Or because it's so low maintenance, is it better in the ground?

Mark:
In a container is fine, but you have to remember, as you get towards the end of September or early October, you want to either sink that container in the ground, or actually put the hellebore back in the ground.  Now, the thing with hellebores, they resent movement.  They resent being relocated.  So, I'd keep it permanently in that container.  But it needs to go dormant and have the insulation of the surrounding ground.  So you can then sink that container in the ground.

Shelley:
That would be one way to bring up those cascading blooms higher to eye level.  Sure.  I can't wait to play with these in my backyard again.  Thanks, Mark.

Mark:
You're welcome.

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