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Hellebore

Sarah Stehr Sarah Stehr

With their large flowers in numerous different shades, hellebore species such as the Christmas rose and Lenten rose conjure up color in the flower bed between December and April. You can read all about planting and caring for the different species and varieties here.

Origin

A total of 19 species of shrub belong to the genus of hellebores; they are native to Europe, some parts of China and the Near East. All species contain helleborine, a highly poisonous substance whose name is a composite of the Greek works “hellein” (to kill) and “bora” (food). The genus, which belongs to the Ranunculaceae family, also has this substance to thank for its botanical name.

Plants from the hellebore genus have other traditional names: Some call them Christmas roses, others Lenten roses. Christmas rose (because of the flowering period of Helleborus niger right in time for the holidays). The hellebore hybrids that flower in the spring in particular are called Lenten rose. Often, the name hellebore is accompanied by a name affix derived from the botanical species name. So, for example, there is a green hellebore (H. viridis), a stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) and a fragrant hellebore (H. odorus).

Christmas rose in a natural location

In nature, the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) grows in the light shade of larger trees

Appearance and Growth

Species of the helleborus genus can be divided into two groups: stemless and the stem-growing. They are summer green or evergreen, depending on the species. Most species belong to the group of stemless hellebores. In these species, the leaves and flowers develop separately from one another from the woody rootstock and rarely achieve a height above 17.72 inches. In contrast to the group of stem-growing species - that rarely live longer than two to four years - they are very long-lasting and can even live up to 25 years in ideal location conditions. There are only four species of stem-growing hellebores: the stinking hellebore, the Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius), H. lividus, and H. x sternii, a cross between the Corsican hellebore, and H. lividus. These species develop upright, woody shoots from which the leaves and flowers grow. They can grow up to 47.24 inches tall. The stems die once the seeds have formed after flowering.

Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)

The Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) is one of the stem-growing species and has a shorter life

The leaves of the Christmas rose and Lenten rose are extremely striking and generally dark or bright green. They each develop one petiole, are palmate pinnate and the individual leaflets often have a serrated margin. The young leaves are still extremely soft; the older they are, the thicker and more leathery they become. The size of the leaves varies from species to species. While some are only 3 inches wide, those of the stem-growing species can easily reach a diameter of almost 3.28 feet.

Hellebore species are extremely popular with gardeners in particular because of their early flowering period in winter and spring. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) reveals its conspicuous, pure white flowers as early as December. It is the first species to flower and therefore the only true “Christmas rose”. It is followed by the Lenten rose between February and April (Helleborus Orientalis hybrids). There are numerous colors and shapes here, which is why they are particularly interesting for use in the garden. The spectrum ranges from single to double-flowered, from white to pink-colored and red, to speckled or almost black flowers. Our native stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) flowers at the same time; its leaves exude a slightly unpleasant fragrance. This evergreen species can grow up to 19.69 inches tall and wide and is enchanting in the early spring with small, light-green flowers.

The Most Important Species for the Garden

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger): Christmas roses are popular potted plants during the holiday season in particular. The evergreen species and their varieties have pretty, generally pure-white flowers.

Lenten rose (H. x orientalis): The orientalis hybrids have probably the widest color range within the genus and ensure plenty of color in the garden in the early spring. They are also evergreen and form a dense clump from which the flowers emerge with diameters of up to 3.94 inches. Thanks to intensive breeding there are now also double-flowered and multi-colored varieties.

Stinking Hellebore (H. foetidus): This native species is more short-lived. Its bell-shaped, light-green flowers are conspicuous in comparison to other species.

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is particularly popular around the holiday season because of its early flowering period

Location and Soil

All hellebore species love slightly off-sunny to semi-shady locations. Direct winter sun is not ideal as this often dries out the leaves. You should also pay attention to the following to avoid mistakes when caring for Christmas roses: The soil should be moderately moist to moist and more loamy and lime-rich.

Where to Plant in the Garden

Christmas and Lenten roses are almost essential in the garden due to their dark-green foliage, magnificently colored flowers, and very early flowering period in the winter and spring. Because, while most plants are still in their winter sleep, hellebores are already putting on their big show in the flowerbed or in pots on the patio. Lenten roses look best when varieties with different flower colors are combined. Other early flowering shrubs such as lungwort make suitable planting partners. Bulb flowers with light blossoms make a beautiful contrast to dark flowering varieties, for example white Daffodils and Tulips. However, you should not plant these too close together to ensure the bulb flowers have sufficient space to develop.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus x orientalis)

Lenten roses, in particular the Helleborus Orientalis hybrids, are essential spring bloomers due to their vibrant flower colors

Planting

The planting time for Christmas and Lenten roses is from late fall until spring. This is the period of the strongest root growth. A semi-shady planting space under a deciduous tree or bush is ideal. In this position, the shrub has shade in the summer and a protective cover created by the falling leaves in the winter. A completely shady location should be avoided as then the plants will form fewer flower buds. Many Helleborus orientalis hybrids also tolerate a sunny planting location, but only if the soil is evenly moist. In general: The sunnier the location, the more moisture the plants need. However, Lenten roses are sensitive to waterlogging. As they form a flat root system, they should be planted in a location where they will not be disturbed by soil activity. It is best to improve slightly sandy soils with plenty of mature garden compost before planting.

Pruning

The old foliage should be pruned before the flowers start to bud. This not only improves the appearance of the flowers. It also helps to prevent black spot disease.

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

The stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) captivates with light-green, bellflower-like flowers

Dividing

The stemless species can be roughly divided during or shortly after flowering in the spring. If you intend to propagate the plant through division and require several small pieces for this, September is the best time. But in this case, the pieces should be protected with foliage and pine brushwood during the first winter.

Additional Care Tips

All in all, none of the hellebore species need a lot of care - provided they have been planted correctly. They are also extremely long-lasting and conjure up a luxuriant show of flowers in the garden year after year, right on time for the start of the season. And best of all: They get more beautiful from year to year. So you should leave the shrubs to grow undisturbed wherever possible, and only divide your hellebores if you wish to propagate them.

Propagation

Hellebore species form striking seed heads in the flower center. These turn brown over time and open up. Then they can be used for propagation. Begin by drying the seeds and then sow them out in pots. Incidentally, propagation with seeds is not for those in a hurry: It can take up to four years before the first plants flower. This type of propagation is suitable for all species of hellebore. Stem-growing species such as stinking hellebore can actually only be propagated through seed sowing, while stemless species can also be propagated through division, ideally in the early fall. Don’t be surprised when propagating through seeds if the flowers of the new plants don’t look exactly like the mother plant: Hellebore species cross-breed with one another, and even different varieties of a species can put forth very different flower colors after cross-breeding.

Stinking Hellebore seed heads

After flowering, hellebore species form conspicuous seed heads that can be used for propagation

Diseases and Pests

Hellebores, Lenten and Christmas roses do not require a lot of care and are less susceptible to diseases and pests. However, black spot disease is very widespread. This fungus forms brown to black speckles on the leaves in the spring that can become bigger and bigger over time. In order to prevent this, the leaves from the previous year should already be pruned near the soil in the spring. The benefit of this care step: You get an uninhibited view of the flowers. If fine black lines or stripes instead of speckles are visible on the leaves, this does not indicate black spot disease, but a viral disease: the Black Death. If the infestation is only minimal, the leaves should also be immediately removed here. If the disease has already spread further, all you can do is choose the most painful solution - dig up the shrub and dispose of it in the household waste.

Occasionally, an aphid or black vine weevil infestation may occur, and even snails have the young leaves of the hellebore species on their menu.

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