The sports world and the movie and music industries are famous for creating overnight stars. The horticultural world is, too. Suddenly a plant is in every column, sweeping the internet, featured in broadcasts. Most enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, then settle into the background of the garden. A few continue to dazzle, entering the pantheon of their respective industries.
Introduced into British gardens in the late 1830s, hellebores (genus Helleborus) have been around a long time, a staple in English gardens. Cherished for their early spring bloom, they are so loved, so well-known that Graham Stuart Thomas’s encyclopedic “Perennial Garden Plants, Third Edition,” carries a beautiful botanical illustration of hellebore blossoms on its dust jacket.
Then came the American gardening boom of the 1980s, which many credit to having started in the Pacific Northwest. Perennials, little known to average gardeners, were cast into the spotlight. At that point, hellebores had been overlooked by all but the most erudite plants people. Still, they didn’t instantly catch on. About the turn of the millennium, the roving spotlight hit. Hellebores were discovered. The common names, Lenten rose (H. orientalist) and Christmas rose (H. niger), seemed to disappear from horticultural vocabulary to be replaced by the simpler, more accurate, more dignified, hellebore. The cupped flowers, uncomplicated but elegant, 2 to 4 inches wide, became a rage. Best of all, they appeared on handsome plants, lasting two months or more.
Suddenly everyone wanted hellebores. Plantsmen started hybridizing and selecting; ergo, the vast majority of hellebores that you find for sale are not species, but hybrids: Helleborus x hybridus. Nursery offerings of the pale pink blossoms were supplemented with deep rose, maroon, deep purple, almost black, ivory and sparkling white, then yellow. A few had variegated flowers. Then came the doubled blossoms, the ruffled petals and increased flower size and flower buds on each stem. It all happened quickly. Shelves of potted plants, in bloom, sold out within days of the opening of each annual Northwest Flower and Garden Show. Prices on new introductions were reminiscent of Dutch tulip mania.
That was 30 years ago. Today, like LeBron James and Lionel Messi, Meryl Streep and The Rolling Stones, hellebores have continued to wow their audiences and sell. Big-box hardware stores with gardening departments bring them in by the truck load in one and five-gallon cans. Costco sells them. Nurseries big and small stock them. The trick is not in finding one you like. The trick is in limiting your urge to buy one (or more) of everything.
But wait! There’s more! These plants will take the shade under a deciduous tree or on the north side of a wall as well as full sun. Unfussy, pretty much disease-free and happy in our rich acid soil, especially when kept evenly moist, the leaves are a show in themselves. The foliage, to use a Rosemary Verey word, is rhapsodic. Large, dark green and leathery, the leaves of many of the hybrids, like massive fingers on an outstretched hand, stand atop foot-long stems. They make for a handsome groundcover. They complement taller foliage like Siberian iris. Grown in a generous container, lifted up on a pedestal, they are a year-round sculpture.
The flowering stems are undependable when cut. However, I have seen them as a beautiful and long-lasting table centerpiece. In a large, shallow bowl, blooms of various colors, cut with just a bit of stem protruding from the bottom, can be floated. The colorful, open flower faces with their bursts of stamens looking up to the diners, especially under candlelight, are (to be accurate, albeit redundant) rhapsodic. Cut short and floated this way, they last as well as any cut flower.
Buy plants in bloom, now. Slip the nursery container into a decorative pot. Enjoy them on a deck, at an entry, going up the stairs to a front door. When the flowers fade, put the plants out in the ground. If you leave flowers on the plant, they’ll form seed pods, quite handsome, too. If the seeds pop and scatter on the soil below, next year you can expect to see little seedlings popping up under the parent plant. You can dig them up, gingerly, in September and pot the seedlings in their own container to nurse along until they are garden ready. September is also the month to dig plants to transplant or divide.
Hellebores are classic perennials: dependable, beautiful, year round, available and affordable. No garden, and no spring, in the Pacific Northwest should be without them. To advocate that one should always stick with the well-known and dependable would be to rob the gardener of great adventures and exhilarating personal discoveries. Still, there is something to be said for putting an established old star in the spotlight, center court or center stage, of your garden. Pick your analogy … but do get the plant. It is an established old star. Hello spring!