There are few plants in the northern hemisphere that choose winter as their time to bloom. Growing from lustrous basal leaves, palmate and often markedly toothed, Hellebores rise on graceful stems to support a shy, buttercup type flower with sepals rather than petals in colors of white, pink, purple, green, even yellow. Their true petals are nectaries, an inner ring of tiny glands containing sugar water and tucked below the many pale stamens, features indicating a primitive plant. Other hellebores have bell-shaped flowers and deciduous leaves.
In Western Europe, on islands in the Mediterranean, Corsica, Majorca, Sardinia, to the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and even as far as western China, one can find Hellebores braving frigid nights and dry summers, growing in the dappled shade of forests. A shade plant, hellebores requires little maintenance and their mounds of leaves rejuvenate as winter approaches and the buds appear, often opening in time for Christmas.
Gertrude Jekyll, an influential British garden designer, writer and artist of the early 20th century wrote that gardeners should use Hellebores "where wood and garden meet...where, placed under deciduous trees, the sun of winter meets the shade of summer."
||Hellebore, Lenten Rose
||Well drained soil, ample moisture for most species.
||Winter and early spring-flowering
||These frost-resistant plants are valued by gardeners for providing blooms in an otherwise lean time. Winter food source for bees. Used in ancient times as a ritual plant and as a poison, Alexander the Great is believed by some historians to have died from a hellebore overdose.
||A complete guide to the genus, including new species and introductions: http://www.hellebores.org
Barry Glick's famous hellebore nursery in West VA: http://www.sunfarm.com/
A great new resource book on the genus is Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide. Burrell and Tyler, Timber Press: Portland, Oregon, 2006.
Image showing the variety of Hellebores blooms
Find Hellebores in the Library Terrace Garden, Asian Discovery Garden, Ancient Plant Garden, Zellerbach Garden and in beds 7d, 10b, 11a, 28, 72a.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS:
Photos by Docent Joanne Taylor; text by Kathy McNeil; profile by Fred Bové