Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
When most people think of spring, they think of the bright colors of spring bulbs like daffodils and tulips. But there are other, more subtle harbingers of spring growing in shady corners of the garden. Hellebores, also called Lenten Roses because they bloom at Lent, are a great way to add color and interest to a shade garden.
What are Hellebores?
Hellebores (Helleborus spp.) are perennial flowers that are native to Europe and Asia. In the US they are hardy in zones 4-9. In zone 7 and warmer, they bloom in December. In colder parts of the country, they bloom in early spring, sometimes breaking through snow and ice to do so. This is usually during the period of Lent, hence the name Lenten Rose.
The flowers were originally white, but growers have produced many hybrids that range in color from pinks to reds to purples. The colors can be difficult to see because the flowers face downwards.
Hellebores are shade plants. Unlike spring flowering bulbs whose foliage dies back after the bulbs have bloomed, hellebores are evergreen. Their foliage consists of broad leaves that grow from a central bud creating an umbrella shape. They make an attractive ground cover during the summer. The foliage blends well with other shade-loving plants like ferns and hostas.
Mature plants form clumps that can be 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches wide. The clumps can live undisturbed for up to 20 years. Hellebores don’t need to be divided.
How to Plant Hellebores
Although you usually only see hellebores in the spring, the best time to plant them is in the fall before the ground freezes. This gives the plants time to settle into their new homes and grow out their roots. Then in the early spring, you will be rewarded with flowers.
The reason that nurseries sell hellebores in the spring is so that customers can see them in bloom. You can plant them in the spring, but if they are already blooming, they may lose those flowers after they are planted in your garden. It’s the shock of the new environment that causes the flowers to die. Don’t worry, after summering in your garden, they will be ready to bloom again the following spring.
Choose a shady spot in your garden with well-drained soil. Hellebores enjoy moist soil, but wet or soggy soil can cause them to rot. I grow mine around my birdbath so that the water that is splashed out by the birds keeps the surrounding soil moist.
Dig a hole that is as deep as the pot the plant is in. Tap the bottom of the pot to loosen the soil. With one hand over the top of the pot to prevent the plant from falling out, turn the pot upside down and gently guide the plant out of it. Place the plant in the hole and replace as much of the soil that you dug out as there is room for. Make sure that the top of the soil ball from the pot is even with the top of the soil of the planting hole. Do not bury the plant. Give it a good watering. When winter sets in, mulch with salt hay or pine boughs.
Wear gloves whenever you are handling hellebores. The leaves contain alkaloids which could cause a rash. The alkaloids have a purpose. They keep deer and rabbits away.
How to Care For Hellebores
Hellebores are evergreen, but their foliage does look a bit tattered after enduring winter weather. Snip off any dead or ragged foliage in the spring. New foliage will replace it after blooming so that you will have a lovely groundcover all summer.
When your plants have finished blooming, remove the flowers unless you want them to go to seed and produce new plants. Just remember that your plants are hybrids, so the flowers of the offspring will look nothing like the parents.
Fertilize your plants in the spring with compost or a balanced fertilizer. Water them during dry periods and then mulch again in the late fall.
How to Divide Hellebores
Hellebores do not need to be divided for the health of the plants like many other perennials. The centers do not die out nor do they stop blooming because they are too crowded. You can divide them if you want more plants or want to share with a friend.
The best time to divide your plants is in the fall. This gives the plants a chance to recover from the division and grow out their roots before going dormant for the winter. You can divide your plants in the spring, but it has to be done before they bloom.
Dig up the clump that you want to divide and shake the soil from it. The point where the roots join the leaves is called the crown. On the crown, look for buds where the leaves grow out of the crown. Divide the crown so that each piece has at least two buds on it.
Replant the divisions being careful to position the crown so that it is at the soil surface. Do not bury it. It will take 2 or 3 years before the divisions will bloom so be patient with them.
How to Grow Hellebores From Seed
You can grow hellebores from seed. Just be aware that the plants are hybrids so the flowers of the offspring will not resemble the flowers of the parent plants. The seed needs to be fresh for best germination. It’s better just to allow it to ripen on the plants and then fall to the ground. You can just transplant the resulting seedlings to wherever in your garden that you want to start new clumps. Another alternative is to collect the seed and then broadcast it in the area where you want new plants to grow.
If you want to start the seeds in a container, collect it from the plants and then sow it in containers and lightly cover with soil. They will germinate in 2 to 3 weeks. The seedlings can be transplanted into your garden in the fall.
If you wish to start the seeds indoors, you will need to take a few steps. The first is to soak the seeds for 24 hours to soften the seed coat. Then plant in containers in an area that remains a constant 70⁰F. Keep them at that temperature for 6 weeks. This mimics summer. Then you will need to make the seeds think that winter has passed by cold stratifying them in your refrigerator for another 4 to 6 weeks. Cover the pots with plastic to keep the soil moist. When the seeds start to germinate, remove them from the refrigerator. Transplant the seedlings into your garden after your last frost.
No matter which method that you use, plants started from seed will need 4 to 5 years before they are large enough to bloom.
Caren White (author) on September 02, 2020:
It sounds like you have a drainage problem. Your soil is too wet and the roots have rotted. Try planting hellebores in another shady spot in your yard that has better drainage.
Sam on September 02, 2020:
Hellabores are so beautiful, i've only just discovered them - however mine has just collapsed - ie the flowers and stems are lying on the ground - they have been watered - but not too much - what would cause this to happen? there were a lot of flowers - perhaps too heavy? thanks
Caren White (author) on January 28, 2019:
Oh, agapanthusis beautiful! It's not uncommon for totally different plants to be called by the same name. That's why it's important to know the latin names of plants. The latin names are unique to each plant.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on January 27, 2019:
I've just looked it up and what our family called Star of Bethlehem is not the same; ours is Agapanthus. Perhaps it was just a family thing, calling it that.
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on January 27, 2019:
When we lived up on Mount Dandenong I had some lovely hellebores, but I didn't know they were called Lenten Roses. I can't remember when they flowered, but perhaps it isn't during Lent in the Southern Hemisphere. However, we do have Star of Bethlehem that comes out at Christmas and Easter Daisies at Easter. Love all your photos, they're beautiful.
Caren White (author) on January 27, 2019:
Thanks, Linda! Hellebores grown from seed take 4 to 5 years before they are large enough to bloom.
Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on January 26, 2019:
I live in deer country and so I love my hellebores. I live in a woodland area and so have allowed my originals to go to seed. Many plants but no blooms yet. About how long before they are mature enough to produce flowers?
By the way this is a great article.