While evergreen trees and shrubs provide structure in the garden, it’s wonderful to see the emergence of a perennial flower bud from the ground shortly after Christmas –– the hellebore!

While evergreen trees and shrubs provide structure in the garden, it’s wonderful to see the emergence of a perennial flower bud from the ground shortly after Christmas –– the hellebore!


Sometimes referred to as Christmas rose or Lenten rose, hellebores are the stars of the late winter/early spring garden.


Plants generally bloom between December and March in cultivation, though some begin earlier and others continue into April and May, particularly in gardens with colder spring climates. Nearly every garden has a spot for hellebores, and the plants will thrive in many different environments. Still, they remain unknown to many gardeners despite their toughness, beauty, hardiness and wonderful habit of blooming in winter when most other plants remain dormant.


The majority of hellebores are deep-rooted, stout plants, with thick shiny, green foliage. The large leaves may persist through winter, but not all plants are wintergreen in all climates.


The plants grow 12 to 18 feet in height, and they gradually increase in diameter to form large clumps with masses of nodding flowers. Once established, most hellebores are drought-tolerant, particularly if given some dappled shade in locales of long, hot and/or dry summers.


Although hellebores are almost invariably sold as shade plants, in most garden conditions they will perform their best if given some sun. They prefer rich soil with plenty of humus and a mulch of shredded leaves or bark, and they are deer-resistant.


Hellebore flowers have five petals and some species resemble wild roses, which is why their common names include Christmas rose and Lenten rose. They do not belong to the rose family, however, but to the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family.


In the past decade, as hellebores have increased in popularity, hybridizing has vastly improved the color range of the flowers from near-blacks, deep purples and slate grays to rich reds, cherry-blossom pinks, yellows, pure whites and soft, creamy lime greens. Many have dots or blotches of a contrasting color around their centers. New hybrids also include those with double flowers (Helleborus Royal Heritage Mix) and those with their flowers turned up (Helleborus Ivory Prince). In my garden, the flowers remain on the plant for almost three months, turning from their original hue to a soft shade of green over time.


In a lightly shaded garden, hellebores look beautiful combined with pulmonarias, ferns and lamiums. In my own garden, I like to place hellebores where I will easily see them in winter and early spring –– near the driveway and walkways to the house. A grouping of nine hellebores plays center stage in a circular bed next to the driveway, surrounding a silver gazing globe on an ornate pedestal.


From November to April, the hellebore foliage and flowers are the only visible plants in that bed. As spring unfolds, the foliage of coral bells, astilbes, cinnamon ferns and variegated hostas gradually fill in, and by the time that the hellebore flowers have faded, the other perennials are in their prime.


Some of the most common species of hellebores are Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, which blooms in winter; Helloborus orientalis, the Lenten rose, which blooms in early spring; Helleborus occidentalis, Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus foetidus. The new color forms are hybrids of Helleborus orientalis and are usually labeled as Helleborus X hybridus.


Jana Milbocker is co-owner of Enchanted Gardens, and garden and landscape design firm in Holliston, Mass.