plant files

Hellebore Season

it’s prime time!

February 26, 2010

A particularly lovely Hellebore at Honeyhill Farms Nursery (photo taken while lying in path looking up!)

Hellebores produce some of the most treasured flowers of winter and early spring. There are many species and hybrids available, each with particular assets in the garden. Breeding efforts particularly focusing on the Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) seen at left are creating ever-richer colors and the forms are increasingly refined every year, with doubles, semi-doubles, more pronounced nectaries and larger, more upward-facing flowers. Other types of hellebores offer beautiful, marbled, sheeny-silver and markedly serrated or plum-infused foliage. There’s even a double Christmas rose (Helleborus niger ).

Yet for all the apparent delicacy of the blossoms, the plants themselves are adaptable and tough garden plants. They are quite drought- and, shade tolerant, deer-proof and – best of all – they flower in winter, when we are longing for color and signs of life in the garden.

There are so many gorgeous hybrids that it can be hard to choose between them. But now is the time to do it – for within a few weeks, the flowers will have faded. And then, sadly, the opportunity to choose just the right color and flower shape will be gone until next February/March.

Local nurseries carry many beautiful varieties, from seed strains (these are the least expensive, as they are very variable in color and form – it’s especially important to select them while they’re in flower) to tissue-cultured varieties that are consistently identical. Helleborus x hybridus cultivars that are tissue-cultured tend to cost more – usually about $20 for a gallon plant. But they are so lovely and precious, you may discover that it feels truly worth it. I adore my plants so much! And pick bouquets from them all winter.

It’s nice to go to a retail nursery where you can find a wide array of hellebore species for sale – the tough, lacy-leaved bear’s foot hellebore (H. foetidus ), the sun-loving, green-flowered Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius ), the rare and slightly tender Helleborus lividus with marbled silver and green foliage and shell pink flowers, the pure white, very early blooming Christmas rose (H. niger ), and the colorful, exotic Lenten rose (H. x hybridus ), as well as myriad hybrids between all the of the above. But you’re likely to find the best array of colors and types if you head directly to hellebore breeders and specialists.

In the Portland area, my top pick is Honeyhill Farms Nursery in the Raleigh Hills area. Jim and Audrey Metcalfe run this nursery attached to their home year-round but it is only open to the public during hellebore flowering season, usually late January, February and early March (depending on the weather). Jim Metcalfe bred two valuable hellebores, Honeyhill Joy and Honeyhill Peace. (Their photos and descriptions can be found on their website, here.) This lovely hillside is home not only to a variety of hellebores but also a gorgeous array of Cyclamen coum, a late winter-flowering hardy Cyclamen. (See slideshow for a pic.)

Another fantastic Hellebore breeder is Northwest Garden Nursery, which holds open house weekends during hellebore flowering season. Upcoming hellebore open garden days are: February 27-28 and March 5-7 from 10 am to 5 pm. Other open nursery dates are listed on the website. Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne used to sell all variety of woodland plants at their nursery and have turned their focus towards wholesale hellebore breeding in recent years. Their extensive display gardens alone are worth a trip to Eugene. They are responsible for the Winter Jewels TM series of hellebore hybrids.

Last but not least, I recommend a trip to Dancing Oaks Nursery in Monmouth to see the hellebores and many other winter flowering plants. Fred Weisensee and Leonard Foltz’s display gardens are carved out of a scenic hillside surrounded by native oak woods. It’s an extraordinary site. They hold their Winter Bloomers Open House Feb 27-28 from 10 to 4 pm. Dancing Oaks is a retail nursery and is open year-round. But the hellebores are only in flower for a couple more weeks so head out there soon. It’s a great trip and you can visit a winery or two on the way out.

Have fun!

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