Oriental Hellebore Info – Learn About Growing Oriental Hellebore Plants

By: Shelley Pierce

What are oriental hellebores? Oriental hellebores (Helleborus orientalis) are one of those plants that make up for all the shortcomings of the other plants in your garden. These evergreen perennials are long-blooming (late winter – mid spring), low maintenance, tolerant of most growing conditions and are generally pest free and deer resistant. Not to mention they add a whole lot of aesthetic appeal to a landscape with their large, cup-shaped, rose-like, nodding flowers. I think I need to pinch myself to convince myself that this plant is real. It certainly sounds too good to be true! Read on to find out more oriental hellebore info and what is involved with growing oriental hellebore plants.

Oriental Hellebore Info

Word of Caution – As it turns out, there is just one aspect of hellebore, commonly referred to as Lenten rose or Christmas rose, which is not so rosy. It is a toxic plant and is poisonous to humans and pets if any plant parts are ingested. Other than this, there does not seem to be any other significant negative characteristics for growing oriental hellebore plants, but this is something you will definitely want to take into consideration particularly if you have young children.

Oriental hellebores originated in Mediterranean regions such as Northeastern Greece, northern and northeastern Turkey and Caucasus Russia. Rated for USDA Hardiness Zones 6–9, this clump-forming plant typically grows 12-18 inches (30-46 cm.) high with a spread of 18 inches (46 cm.). This winter blooming plant features five petal-like sepals in an array of colors that includes pink, burgundy, red, purple, white, and green.

In terms of lifespan, you can reasonably expect it to adorn your landscape for at least 5 years. It is very versatile in a landscape, as it can be planted en masse, used as a border edging or as a welcome addition to rock or woodland garden settings.

How to Grow Oriental Hellebores

While oriental hellebores tolerate most growing conditions, they will grow to their maximum potential when planted in a partially shaded location protected from cold winter winds in soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline, rich and well-draining. A full shade location is not conducive to flower production.

When planting, space plants at least 18 inches (46 cm.) apart and position the oriental hellebores in the ground so that the top of their crowns are ½ inch (1.2 cm.) below the soil level. Following this guideline will ensure that it is not planted too deeply, affecting flower production later.

In terms of hydration, be sure to maintain soil that is evenly moist and keep the plants well-watered the first year. A light application of granular, balanced fertilizer is recommended in early spring when the flowers appear to give the plants a nice boost.

Propagation is made possible by the division of the clumps in early spring or via seeds.

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Oriental Hellebore flowers

Oriental Hellebore flowers

Oriental Hellebore flowers

Oriental Hellebore flowers

Other Names: Lenten Rose, Winter Rose

Buttercup-type dangling flowers in rose, purple and white emerge in late winter and spring, one of the first flowers to come up in cool weather and what a beautiful harbinger they are ideal for woodland gardens and shady slopes

Oriental Hellebore features showy nodding rose cup-shaped flowers at the ends of the stems from early to mid spring. Its glossy oval compound leaves remain bluish-green in color throughout the year. The fruit is not ornamentally significant.

Oriental Hellebore is an herbaceous evergreen perennial with an upright spreading habit of growth. Its medium texture blends into the garden, but can always be balanced by a couple of finer or coarser plants for an effective composition.

This is a relatively low maintenance plant, and should be cut back in late fall in preparation for winter. Deer don't particularly care for this plant and will usually leave it alone in favor of tastier treats. It has no significant negative characteristics.

Oriental Hellebore is recommended for the following landscape applications

  • Mass Planting
  • Rock/Alpine Gardens
  • Border Edging
  • General Garden Use
  • Naturalizing And Woodland Gardens

Oriental Hellebore will grow to be about 18 inches tall at maturity, with a spread of 18 inches. When grown in masses or used as a bedding plant, individual plants should be spaced approximately 14 inches apart. Its foliage tends to remain dense right to the ground, not requiring facer plants in front. It grows at a medium rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for approximately 5 years.

This plant does best in partial shade to shade. It does best in average to evenly moist conditions, but will not tolerate standing water. It is not particular as to soil pH, but grows best in rich soils. It is somewhat tolerant of urban pollution, and will benefit from being planted in a relatively sheltered location. This species is not originally from North America, and parts of it are known to be toxic to humans and animals, so care should be exercised in planting it around children and pets. It can be propagated by division.

Pruning and caring for hellebore

Easy to care for, hellebore doesn’t bloom until the second year after planting. It needs time to settle in.

When buds appear, eliminate wilted, spotted or withered leaves, especially for the Helleborus niger variety.

Once it has started bearing flowers, you can remove wilted flowers regularly (deadheading) to trigger appearance of new buds.

To make you hellebore even more beautiful, you can also remove damaged leaves to highlight the beauty of its flowers.

For potted hellebore, it is necessary to regularly add fertilizer because the substrate quickly loses its nutrients in pots.

I enjoy a four-season garden, so I find it particularly rewarding to have blooms that start in late winter and early spring. This is when hellebores take center stage. Even when flattened by winter’s harsh frost and snow, they revive with the first warming rays of the sun. You simply have to love a plant that braves what nature throws at it and can still show off at this time of year. And those flowers last a long time—from March to May in my Pennsylvania garden. That they are great shade plants and basically evergreen only adds to their allure. The most popular and, for that matter, easiest to grow are the Oriental hybrid hellebores (Helleborus × hybridus cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 6–9). Their common name is Lenten rose because they bloom around the beginning of Lent. And as long-blooming, low-maintenance, basically evergreen perennials that tolerate even dry shade and can flower before the snow melts, these plants have few equals in the garden.

Planting hellebores on a hillside allows you to see into the blooms. If you live on flat land, don’t worry: The outsides of the flowers are beautiful, too. The clumping habit of hellebores amplifies the beauty of the individual blooms. The colorful parts of a hellebore flower are actually bracts, which tend to be green. The best breeding removes—or retains—most of this color, depending on the intention.

With the dizzying array of choices available, it’s easy to find something you like. That said, some hellebores are better than others, and armed with a little knowledge, you can be sure to walk away from your local garden center with the pick of the litter.

To get what you want, buy it in bloom

Deep purple flowers are striking anytime but especially so in late winter and early spring. Spotting is one of the many attention-grabbing attributes hellebore blooms can have. Dark centers also catch the eye. Adding hellebores to your garden expands the possibilities of the winter and spring landscape. They combine wonderfully with daffodils. Hellebores can also have picotee edges . . . . . . or double flowers.

Hellebores come in virtually any color you want: white, green, pink, apricot, and purple, to name just a few. We breeders haven’t created a worthy true blue or true red, but we’re working on it. My favorite colors for hellebores seem to change every year. Currently, I’m partial to the yellows and the blacks (which are really a shade of deep purple).

One isn’t limited, however, to this rainbow of solid colors. Hellebores can also have beautiful picotee edges (those that are a different color than the rest of the flower) or veining to adorn the outside of the bloom. Inside, they can have spotting or a dark center that draws your eye into the flower.

The varied offerings extend to the shape of the flowers as well. In addition to single, double, and star-shaped flowers, hellebores can have an anemone-flowered form, which looks like something between a single and a double.

When purchasing a hellebore, the best way to ensure you are getting what you want is to buy it in bloom. Look for colors that are unmuddied by too much green in the flower—unless they are green by design. If the flower is a picotee or is veined or spotted, the markings should be uniform on all petals (which are actually sepals).

Oriental Hybrid Hellebores

Helleborus × hybridus cvs.
(Hel-LEB-or-us ex HY-brid-us)

Hellebores are hardy in Zones 6 to 9.

They tolerate almost full sun to almost full shade but prefer partial shade. Dense shade may reduce flower production.

Generally, they enjoy slightly neutral to acidic soils. Don’t plant them in a spot that’s too wet as this encourages rot.

Planting depth
The crown should be just covered by the soil. As with peonies, planting hellebores too deeply inhibits flower production.

They value a yearly application of well-rotted manure or compost to encourage strong growth but will forgive you if you forget for a year or two. To better view their flowers, remove the past year’s foliage in late January or early February before the buds emerge, to avoid damaging them. Don’t throw the old leaves in the compost heap because it takes more than a year for them to decompose.

They are largely untroubled by diseases or pests, including deer.

They rapidly self-sow. You may want to discourage this tendency, not only to keep the garden tidy but also to prevent seeds from sowing themselves in the crowns of other plants. Don’t expect seedlings to be true to parent type. Although division isn’t necessary, it is the best method for creating an exact duplicate of a particular plant. In spring or late summer, simply pull the crown apart with your hands. Keep the plants sufficiently watered

I like hellebores with a short stem or pedicel at the base of the flower, which causes the flower to face outward rather than down. If the flower dangles, I am not put off. I enjoy turning up their faces—participating with the plants, if you will.

If the hellebore you want to buy is not in bloom, you will have to make some detailed inquiries. Hellebore seedlings are unlikely to look like the plant they came from, unless the parent was specifically bred to produce such offspring. Better garden centers should be able to answer questions about the plant’s parentage and the likelihood that it may be true to type.

I usually don’t recommend searching for named varieties of hellebores because there aren’t many around, and with a keen eye, you can find an unnamed plant that is equal to the one you are looking for. A hellebore is often listed as belonging to a specific strain or line (Royal Heritage Strain or Pine Knot Strain, for example) that is bred for a specific purpose, be it color saturation, color variety, or flower shape. It is a good practice to inquire about the attributes for which your intended purchase was bred.

I consider hellebores nature’s gift in winter. They are the perfect cure for long winters and cabin fever, heralding spring even before the daffodils.

More hellebores to consider

Click on the links below for photos and cultural requirements of these outstanding hellebores:

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