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by Des Kennedy
April 27, 2001

I had intended today to focus on crocuses because we enjoyed such splendid vivid drifts of them across our March gardens. But my agenda’s been hijacked by hellebores, those modest beauties that begin blooming with the crocuses and are blooming still, although the crocuses are already long gone.
Hellebores are stoutly Christian perennials. Legend has it that the Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, bloomed outside the manger on the first Christmas Eve. The Lenten Rose, H. orientalis, earned its name by always being in bloom for Easter. There’s even a Saint Patrick’s Rose, H. viridis, whose greenish flowers appear for the saint’s March feast day.Like good Christians, hellebores are never difficult, remain steadfast in the face of adversity, and display their considerable charms with an agreeable humility. 
The showiest, and in some quarters most desirable of the tribe is the Christmas Rose. Properly placed against a sheltering wall, this elegant small evergreen will bloom from December until April in extremely cold conditions. Established plants -- and hellebores are not a species to be hurried along -- will produce up to thirty flowers each in a dense cluster near the earth. Framed by lustrous green leaves, the white waxen blooms are cup-shaped, much like certain begonias, up to 5 centimetres wide. The Connecticut plantswoman Helen Van Pelt Wilson described the enduring but subtly changing quality of the blooms: “As the months go by from October to March, the flowers pass from white through many beautiful rose-pink shadings, and finally turn a pleasant enduring green.” 
A shade less refined, but every bit as unusual, the Bearsfoot Hellebore, H. foetidus, is the first to make a show of itself at our place. A native of western Europe, it grows almost like a small shrub, with several thick green stems almost a metre tall sparsely draped with leathery deep-cut leaves. Although evergreen, it has a forlorn and world-weary look about it in the depths of winter. But come the first hints of warmth in February, it brightens up appreciably, eventually producing massed clusters of flowers in peculiar little pale green globes. These last for several months and the plants remain structurally handsome well into summer. A little gangly-looking if stuck out in the open on its own, it shows best in groupings set against a wall or shrub background and is excellent among naturalized daffodils. It self-sows freely at our place, but new plants will take up to three years to reach maturity. 
By early March the Lenten Roses have broken into bloom. Much like the Christmas Rose, although not quite so hardy, H. orientalis is an undisputed star of the early spring garden. Her blooms are borne on short waxy stems in variable colours. We have a white variety tucked on the north side of a moss-covered cedar stump, the white blooms showing exquisitely against the vivid greens of the mossy stump. Close by, others have flowers of purple, claret and a delicious chocolate red, many of them flecked with maroon. The clustered heads bow towards the earth, reminding one of buddhist nuns. Over time many dozens of blossoms may be borne on a single plant. 
The blooms last for many weeks -- far longer than the bold spring bulbs that hellebores complement so well -- often with subtle changes in colour. Because the flowers are held so close to the ground, they mix well with other low growers -- ajuga, wild ginger, violets and primroses -- and they’re good companions with ferns which will give them the semi-shade they prefer. These too have naturalized at our place. 
Last of the family to make a show for us is the Corsican Hellebore, H. argutifolius (also called corsicus or lividus), which is less commonly seen as it’s hardy only to zone 7. A warmer and drier plant all around, it will tolerate more sun and drought than the others. Its foliage really is exceptional -- shiny pale blue-green leaflets with sharply toothed edges. Later in spring, clusters of light chartreuse flowers dangle among the uppermost leaves, remaining attractive well into summer. 
For all their charms, hellebores require very little care. They’ll thrive in even average soil, doing best in light loam that retains moisture well. Bone meal helps at planting, and subsequent top dressings of leaf mold, compost or rotted manure are all they ask. They will not tolerate soggy soil. Nor do they appreciate being moved about, so it’s best to select the right spot for them and be done with it. All do best beneath the semi-shade of trees or shrubs, and Christmas Roses especially need shelter from cold and dessicating winter winds.
I’ll give the last word to Helen Van Pelt Wilson who writes: “It is indeed part of the pleasure of growing hellebores that they afford us the special delights of inconsistency. . . Midsummer blooms grown in the open on midwinter plants -- therein lies the charm of the hellebores.” 

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