Sunday, April 24, 2016

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Hello Spring, Hello Hellebores


As someone who has worked in garden centers for 49 years, there's precious little of a horticultural bent you could share that would shock me. Been there, heard it. Still, I admire the optimism of people that want it all.

By that, I mean the (re)quest for the elusive plant that does something splashy every season of the year. I call it the "wish-upon-a-star" plant syndrome. If such a plant existed in the upper Midwest it would:

   * bloom April thru October and be available in every color of the rainbow
   * have intoxicating fragrance
   * bear delectable, edible fruit
   * display long-lasting fall color, but
   * have evergreen foliage  
   * grow exactly the height and spread your site requires (sans pruning)
   * be repugnant to marauding deer and bunnies
   * be a way station for pollinating insects and hummingbirds
   * tolerate sun or shade, wet or dry soils

Red Racer
We plant people have all had this fantasy. But until horticultural science is more advanced and we do intergeneric gene splicing I nominate Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) as a wish-upon-a-star perennial for its workhorse range of garden attributes, day in, day out.

Lenten rose is in bloom long before and after Forsythia dreams of showing its golden wares. Literally, H. x hybridus flower stems push up through snow and last year's evergreen foliage. Individual flowers can be 2-3" in diameter, one to four per stem. Because the flowers arrive in late winter Nature has given Hellebores nodding, downward-facing flowers that shed snow.

Cotton Candy
Fortunately hybridizers have been working like mad to bring the blooms to a more upright position so you don't have to lie on the ground to enjoy the wonderful range of new colors. If you're color particular like me you may want to buy named varieties so you know what color you're getting. If they're offered as generic seedlings consider buying them in bloom.

Winter Jewels Cherry Blossom
In the quest for more upright and outward-facing flowers the color range has been expanded to white, cream, butter yellow, pinks, rose, almost black and more. Many have contrasting dotting and spotting on the flowers, and they last at least 6-8 weeks. And, drum roll please, they aren't just 5 petaled (technically they're sepals), now there are numerous double-flowered series.

You want more? The flowers eventually fade and the seed pods develop an almost papery fish-scale appearance that is also long lasting. The foliage has an interesting finger-like texture and is very glossy green. Some new varieties ( H. 'Ivory Prince' and 'Pink Frost', for example) have much darker foliage with beautiful silver veins that make it an attractive foliage plant even when out of bloom. Yes, they're evergreen even in the upper Midwest. Come March "deadleafing" of winter-weary foliage is in order to make way for fresh new leaves.

Ivory Prince with winter foliage, left, then 4 weeks later
Lenten roses are tidy clump-formers, generally 15-18" tall and slightly wider at maturity. The singles may seed about, but that is easily remedied with timely deadheading. As long as they're sited in a moist, highly organic soil (a different gardeners' fantasy) alkaline soils are not a problem. Hallelujah, something that doesn't demand acidic soil! I find they're great performers in sun or shade, although they're most often recommended for partial shade sites.

Winter Jewels Berry Swirl

Hellebores are a bit like peonies in that they're happiest planted and left alone. Slug damage is occasionally reported, but I'm happy to say that's only something that I've read about, unlike many Hosta varieties. Deer and rabbits eschew (not chew, haha) Lenten rose. Is there no end to this plant's virtues? The only drawback I hear from customers is that they're slow to mature, typically taking three years to reach blooming size in a gallon pot. One more asset- winter hardy to Zone 4!

When you wish upon that perfect perennial star put Hellebore hybrids at the top of your fantasy plant wish list!










          

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