Very few plants dare peek through the cold, hard earth to face the rain, snow and chilly air found here in Zone 7 during January and February. One brave perennial, the hellebore (Helleborus orientalis), faithfully appears every winter, drawn out by the sun.
“It’s a wonderful thing when you have just spent a week shivering next to the heater to go outside and find these little blossoms perfectly happy and totally immune to the cold,” says Sally McCabe, PHS Associate Director of Community Education. “Mine are happy here-- rain, snow or sleet!”
An evergreen, the frost-tolerant hellebore is in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and is native to Greece and Turkey. This beauty has shiny, green leaves that weather the winter well. The plants grow in coarse clumps, reaching 12 to 18 inches tall and wide. Despite names such as Lenten rose, winter rose, and Christmas rose, hellebores are not closely related to the rose family.
Nodding downward, the hellebore’s 2.5-inch, saucer-shaped blooms open in an array of colors, including yellow, lavender, white, pink, green, purple, and a deep purple that appears black. Grown along a flowerbed or border, hellebores grace a garden when no other bloom will show its face. Many gardeners prefer to plant their hellebores on a hillside to view from below.
If you don’t have any hellebores to brighten your garden this winter, plan ahead for next year. Shop for them in February and March, when the selection is the largest and the plants are in bloom. You’ll be able to see the colors and choose your favorites. They’ll do well in part to full shade and humus-rich soil that is neutral to alkaline. This magical perennial is also adaptable to acidic woodland soils. Most are rated for USDA Hardiness in Zones 4 through 9.
Originally grown for their medicinal properties, hellebores are filled with alkaloid toxins, making these low-maintenance lovelies both deer- and rabbit-resistant. What more could you ask for?