How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Hellebore Flowers
Hellebore flowers have become a shade darling for many gardeners. Their beautiful blooms come in a wide variety of different colors and they can also grow easily in many different climates. In this article, gardening expert Jill Drago walks through each step of growing hellebore flowers in your garden, and their care.
Winters without plants can be long and dreary for gardeners. After a few sunny days, and maybe some snow melting I know I find myself bundling up and heading out to tip-toe through my gardens to search for ANY signs of life. Often Hellebore is one of the first friends I meet.
One of the only perennials that bloom in late winter to early spring, this unique perennial flower ranges from creamy white to nearly black. There are more than 20 species of hellebore today, with some of them hybrids that are quite beautiful. They are popular perennials for shaded areas, or well planned shade gardens.
Growing in popularity over the past twenty or so years due to hybridizing, hellebores are becoming a staple in the spring garden. Hellebores grow and bloom beautifully alongside your spring bulbs. Keep your garden full of life after the hellebores pass by pairing them with plants such as heuchera, ferns, or hosta. Keep on reading to find out how to plant, grow, and care for hellebores in your garden this season!
Hellebore Plant Overview
Plant type Perennial
Season Late Winter to Spring
Pests Aphids, Leaf Miners,
Slugs Family Ranunculaceae
Exposure Partial to full shade, Sun in Winter
Genus Helleborus sp.
Maturity date 18 months
Growth rate Slow
Soil type Well draining, alkaline
Native are Southern Europe
Plant Spacing 15-18 inches
Hardiness Zone 3-9
Plant with Spring bulbs, shade friendly plants
Planting depth Crown just above soil
Watering Requirement moist, well drained
Don’t plant with large or fast growing plants
Height 1-2 feet tall
The hellebore originated in Southern Europe. Its name is derived from the Greek words “to harm” and “food”. The history of the hellebore is dappled with dark stories. Many of these stories include well-known historical people using parts of the hellebore plant to poison their enemies. The first documentation was around 1400 BC in Greece.
The plant was used to help cleanse the mind of pervasive thoughts. It was also used to keep animals free of evil spirits, and to help the heart and mind to be clear and happy.
I am sure the reason that none of the above uses for hellebore are still in use today is because of the plant’s toxicity. Every single part of the hellebore plant is toxic to animals and humans. It is likely that the reason the plants are so toxic is to defend itself from insects and animals.
The type of toxin found within the hellebore plant as a cardiac glycoside. Now that’s a little too scientific for me, so in short if you, your kids, or your pets eat any part of these plants your stomach, heart, intestines and nervous system could be affected.
Widely loved for its early spring blooms, hellebores continue to give gardeners hope upon their return every year. These plants are typically grown and sold in one gallon pots. They are best used in shaded gardens, or in containers.
Helleborus orientalis is the most popular species chosen by gardeners. This is likely because it is the most hybridized species of the lenten rose, offering up a large range in flower colors.
Hellebores are a member of the Buttercup family. Plants in this family send up stems from a lush bottom growth of foliage. Each stem has one singular flower. These flowers are made up of five petal-like sepals which form a ring around the actual flowers which look like a cup that holds the nectar. The sepals are decorative, because they are not petals they will remain on the plant for a couple of months.
Hellebores are readily available at your local garden centers all year long. There is often a push to sell them in the early spring, and may be when you can find a better variety. If you purchase in the spring it is likely that the plant will already be blooming, or just about to bloom.
Keep in mind that these plants bloom in the spring and will not rebloom into the summer. If you are looking to work on your hellebore after the blooming season, try some of these propagation techniques.
Propagation by Division
Hellebores can be easily propagated by division. Division is such a great gardening activity. It multiples your plants at no cost, and it helps clean up your gardens. Division is a method of plant propagation where you essentially divide one larger plant into two or more smaller plants.
This is usually done by digging up the larger plant, and slicing with a shovel down the middle of the plant. Division of hellebores is best done in the late winter or early spring. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the sap inside the plants, it can be irritating to some. Before you begin to dig, find garden locations for your new plants.
Give the plant a light watering to help moisten the soil. This will also help with any transplant shock. Using a shovel, begin to dig out the plant. Start digging about 10 inches away from the plant to make sure you don’t chop off any of the roots.
Pop the plant out of the ground, and gently shake some of the soil away from the roots. Place the plant down on the ground, and decide where you want to split the plant. It is important to make sure that you have two or more buds on each side of the division.
Plant your divisions as quickly as possible to prevent the roots from drying out. Dig a hole a bit bigger than your division; if your division is on the smaller side you may be able to just disturb the soil enough to get your new plant settled in.
Amending your soil with compost will give your plant a great start. Support your division as you replace the soil around the roots. Once you’ve packed your soil down a bit, and the hellebore is sturdy, give it a nice gentle watering.
Growing from Seed
Many of the hellebore hybrids available today will produce seed, however they will not grow true replicas of their parent plant. They will still produce a plant, however, the color may be off, or the flowers may be single instead of double. If you are looking for a carbon copy of your plant, division is the way to go.
Many hellebore set seeds that are ready to be harvested in the late summer. You have the option to collect the seeds, or to let the plant self seed. Self seeding will allow the seeds of the plants to mature on the plant, drop from the plant, and sew themselves at the base of your current plant.
You can also purchase seeds from a seed trade, or even from garden centers. Either way, you want to get those seeds in the ground by the end of the summer. Allowing the planted seeds to get a few weeks of warm sun before the weather turns chilly will set the seeds up for the perfect timing of germinating in the winter.
Sewing the seeds couldn’t be easier. First you will want to moisten the soil. Next, spread the seeds on to the top of the soil. It is important not to bury the seeds too deeply in the soil. Gently press the seeds into the soil with your hand, and cover lightly with soil.
When planting your hellebore be sure to choose your location well, you will want full to partial shade with full shade in the summer months. Hellebore also prefers well draining soil. Amend with compost or peat if you have heavier soil.
Alkaline soil is the best option for these plants, you can find out the pH of your soil by performing a soil test. Soil test kits are available at your local hardware store or garden center. Using garden lime is an easy and effective way to raise the pH of your soil. You are looking for the pH of your soil to be anywhere around or above 7.
First you will want to dig a hole a bit bigger than the size of the plant you purchased, or the size of your division. Loosen the soil, and add compost to enrich the organic matter that will be feeding your plant.
Place the hellebore so that the crown of the plant is sitting just above the soil line. The crown of the plant is where the stems meet the roots. If you bury that crown you risk the plant rotting. Once you have lightly packed the soil around the plant, using your hand not your feet, give the plant a good soaking. Hellebore will require a good watering for the first week or so, until its roots have a chance to get established.
Hellebores are also great cut flower choices. Be sure to add a few plants to your cutting garden. These flowers would provide such nice interest to your spring bouquets. Some of the darker flowered varieties would be so pretty with lighter daffodils, and the pink varieties would pair well with any tulip!
How to Grow Hellebore
Growing Hellebore requires the right hardiness zones, proper soil, adequate sunlight, and the right amount of water. There are also a few other factors that go into getting bigger blooms. Let’s dive into all the details when it comes to growing hellebore.
Hellebore is a shade loving perennial flower during the summer months. During these warmer months the hellebore only needs a few hours of dappled sunlight to grow successfully. In the wintertime, hellebore likes a bit more sun.
The best place to plant a hellebore is underneath a deciduous tree. The leaves on these trees will provide the summer shade, and the winter sun that Hellebore requires. I also love them in perennial gardens bordering a home where the shade of the home will protect them from the summer sun, as well as from any drying winds.
Watering hellebores is fairly straightforward and simple. Water as you normally would water the rest of the perennials in your garden. They don’t require any extra attention in terms of the water they need. Hellebores do not like having their feet wet. But, if you have planted your hellebore in some well draining soil you will be good to go!
Plant your hellebore in well draining soil. Adding compost at the time of planting and amending with compost every year will help with that. Hellebores like an alkaline soil. If you think or know you have acidic soil you can easily add some garden lime to help balance your soil. A soil test is always recommended before any amending.
Climate and Temperature
Hellebores are hardy in USDA zones 3-9. These plants are very cold tolerant, however zones 3 and 4 may want to take extra care to protect the hellebores from winter winds. They are also popular in shade gardens, and planted in shady areas. They don’t like extreme heat, so make sure if you live in a warmer zone, you’ve planted them in at least partial shade. Hellebore can also be grown as annual flowers in warmer climates.
Hellebores don’t need much in the way of fertilizing. They prefer organic matter such as compost. In the spring before I mulch, I like to add a little bit of compost to all of my perennials. I do this by creating a circle of compost that extends just beyond the drip line of the plant.
You won’t need much more than a solid coating. However, most plants will take up to an inch of compost. I choose to just do a coating because I know that I will be mulching over it and I want to make sure that I’m not burning the plant.
This plant is easy to grow, and easy to maintain. You may opt to deadhead the flowers after they have passed. Do this by snipping the flowers off at the base. Occasional removal of any browned leaves may be needed as the season progresses. This can be accomplished the same way as deadheading, just snip the leaf off close to the stem. In some cases, you might be able to gently pull them off.
At the end of the season, cut the stems back to the ground. Some areas may be able to leave the bottom foliage. However, if you live in an area where frost is a factor you will want to cut them back as the leaves will become unattractive.
There are several popular varieties of hellebore, and all of them have almost equally beautiful traits. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular varieties that you’ll likely want to consider plating in your garden.
Helleborus foetidus, also known as stinking hellebore, this variety of hellebore will bloom in late winter to early spring. This variety has drooping blooms that are a little smaller than most hellebore you may be used to seeing. The blooms are green with a maroon edge.
The leaves are deeply palmated and attractive. This species will grow to two feet in height. Don’t be fooled by the nickname of this plant. This plant does not have an odor all of the time, only when it is crushed. People have likened the odor to that of a wet dog.
This variety of hellebore blooms a bit earlier than the rest, hence the name. In warmer climates, this plant will bloom around Christmas. Helleborus niger, the christmas rose, will grow to about one foot in height. In cooler climates it will bloom in early spring.
Helleborus niger is a well loved variety for its large saucer-like, white flowers. The stems on this plant are short, keeping the flowers close to the large leaves. You can use these flowers as cut flowers in a sweet spring arrangement as well!
Helleborous x hybridus ‘Walhelivor’ is such a pretty variety. These flower buds form on deep red stems, and show as pink buds. The flowers open to a rich cream and at times have a hint of green to them.
This color combination provides such a pretty spring palate to your garden. This variety will grow to 12 inches in height and spread even wider. The foliage is the traditional lobed foliage that you expect from hellebore, but with a silver tinge giving the plant an overall softness.
Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ruse Black’ is a beautiful nearly black flowered variety. Growing to 16 inches in height and 20 inches in width this is a stunning option for a woodland garden, or a garden edge.
The stamens on this variety are white and would be really pretty in an Asian-style garden. Plant these under or nearby a Japanese maple tree and you will have a glowing red garden all season long.
Just as the name describes, Helleborus x hybridus ‘Windcliff Slaty Blue’ produces interesting blooms that range from a dusty purple to a deep blue. This variety grows in clumps that reach 18 inches in height, and 24 inches in width.
The foliage is a gray green color, which really offsets the dark flowers. Plant these as a border, or in a mass planting and you will have a drought tolerant ground cover for your pretty spring borders.
Pests and Diseases
Something important to keep in mind is that hellebores are toxic to humans and animals. The sap inside the plant can cause skin irritation, and ingesting any part of the plant can make you or your pets sick. Because of this, wildlife does not like to munch on hellebore.
Aphids can be found pretty much anywhere in your garden. These bugs can be found on all parts of your hellebore. They usually appear in masses and are easy to spot because of that. They are a light green, and blend in well to your plants foliage.
One way to remove aphids is by hosing your plant down, you will just want to be careful of blasting your flowers too hard with water- you don’t want to destroy them! You can also use insecticidal soap.
Only found on one species of hellebore, Helleborus foetidus or bearsfoot hellebore, leaf miners are very small flies that lay eggs on leaves. The flies don’t do any direct damage, but their eggs do.
Once the eggs hatch and the larvae emerge they much on the leaf tissue as they tunnel along the inside of the leaves. These bugs will leave white swirls and squiggles on your leaf surface, which is evidence of the absence of chlorophyll.
Luckily, this will not kill your plant. It will damage the nibbled leaves, and can disfigure them. If you notice anything like this on your plant, just snip off the leaves and dispose of them.
Unfortunately, slugs are a pretty common pest in gardens, and your hellebores are no exception. Slugs will eat holes in the leaves of your plants. They won’t stop there either, you can find them crawling up the stems if your plants and dining on the flowers as well.
You can pick the slugs off your plants, or you can use a variety of other methods. These methods include copper tape, beer traps, or bait which can be purchased at a hardware store or garden center.
Black Death of Hellebore
As the name would have you believe, this is a serious disease of the hellebore plant. It is believed that this disease is caused by helleborus net necrosis virus. You may notice black spots on the leaves of your plant that could resemble leaf spot.
However, as this disease progresses the state of the plant will worsen. You will notice stunted and distorted new growth developing on the plant. Black lines may present themselves on the leaves, and in some cases even on the stems and the flowers.
There is no chemical control for this disease. If you believe your plant has the black death you should remove it and destroy it as soon as you can to prevent spreading.
The helleborus net necrosis virus is transmitted by aphids. If possible, eliminate any aphids when you see their presence. One way to remove aphids from your plants is to spray a hose at your plant to physically remove them.
This virus is also transmitted through gardening tools. Take extra caution to sterilize your tools, especially after working with any diseased plants.
A common wet weather disease that can affect hellebores is downy mildew. The tell tale signs of downy mildew will be a plant that has the appearance of being covered in mildew. Pair this with brown and black spots on the leaves and you’ve got yourself some downy mildew.
This disease can be prevented by watering only at the base of the plant, eliminating sitting water on the surface of the leaves. You can also use a broad spectrum fungicide found at your local garden centers after the onset of the disease. Removing any infected leaves will also help keep the disease under control.
The leaf spot, or black spot, on hellebores is caused by a fungus. It will present itself to you as black spots on the leaves. At the first sign of this infection you should remove any of the affected leaves. If you don’t remove the infected plant tissue it will spread and can lead to long term issues with the plant.
Leaf spot can look like Black Death at first. The easiest way to tell the difference is to look at the shapes of the spots on the leaves. Leaf spot lesions are rounded, whereas the black death lesions are more blotchy.
This disease is more prevalent in hot and humid climates. If you are experiencing a humid period, think twice before watering your plant as it may not be needed. You can use a broad spectrum fungicide to control leaf spot.
The best way to prevent this disease is by doing a good fall clean up. Cut the plants back, and remove all of the leaf litter around the plant. This will allow the plant to get a maximum amount of airflow while also removing any possible remaining fungus that could be responsible for spreading this disease in the spring.
Now that we have gone over what you need to know about caring for hellebores, let’s talk about how you can use them in your garden!
Hellebores grow to about 2 feet in height, making them a great border plant, or even a mid range perennial depending what other plants you have going on in your beds. They are so pretty planted among Solomon’s seal along a stretch of foundation.
Hellebores are excellent in containers. I love to see them paired with pussy willow or forsythia stems for a showy spring container. They are also gorgeous mixed in containers with other spring bulbs.
A beautiful spring bloomer underneath the canopy of a tree. In shade gardens they are best planted with spring bulbs. Plant alongside other plants that love shade and will fill in your garden in the absence of the hellebore blossoms. Good selections for this would be hosta, or shade loving annuals such as impatiens.
Again, wherever you decide to plant your hellebore remember to keep it out of reach of pets and kids that may be tempted to touch or eat it due to the toxicity.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are hellebore invasive?
Hellebore does not quite qualify as an invasive species. However, it is a prolific self seeder. As the flowering period for hellebore comes to close you will notice very distinctive seed heads that form within the flowers. If you deadhead the flowers at this point you will avoid them dropping their seeds to the soil which will cause your clumps of hellebore to expand.
However, if you have room in your garden, and you wouldn’t mind some more hellebore then by all means let the seeds drop and see what happens!
Is hellebore evergreen?
Yes! Hellebores are evergreen. The stems will die back, and you will be left with the lower foliage. In many cases however, the remaining foliage will remain and flatten on the ground. I would not suggest growing this for winter interest.
How often do I need to water my hellebore?
Newly planted hellebores should receive one inch of water per week, whether that is by irrigation or rainfall. Once your hellebores are established they will only need a heavy watering during dry spells.
Can I grow hellebores indoors?
You can! Hellebores make nice indoor plants, but they are tricky to get flowering. Hellebores require about a month of temperatures in the 40s to produce flowers. If you have potted up your hellebore, simply move them into your garage or basement to give them the coldspell that they require.
While potting your plant choose a well draining potting soil. Keep your hellebore in a room that receives some indirect sunlight. If possible keep it in a chilly spot. Mist the plant regularly, about once a week, to keep the plant from drying out by mimicking the outdoor humidity levels.
Hellebores have a place in any four season garden. At a time when most plants are barren, this particular flower is a happy sight to many gardeners. If you are looking for a way to wake up your garden in the springtime, hellebores are a great option!
The toxicity of the plant is a little concerning, however if you have the ability to plant a mass of hellebore in a woodland setting, or up in a taller container you should definitely give it a try. I really love the idea of planting a mass underneath a tree or two, maybe in place of daffodils. What a pretty spring sight that would be! No matter where you choose to plant the hellebore, get ready for an easy, beautiful ride!