Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Oh the places you'll grow

The frigid weather we had a few weeks ago seems like a distant memory today as we stand now at a balmy 53 degrees. Long range forecasts show night temps aren't expected to drop below 40 for the foreseeable future. Though the warm weather is a far cry from winter, all of the other signs are most definitely here: herbaceous perennials that had bravely soldiered on through a mild fall are blackened, many even turned crispy brown from the dry arctic winds that dessicated the foliage. Winter blooming Camellias with their swollen buds are just beginning to break, giving a hint of the colorful show they are about to put on. Sumptuous, milky white flowers of the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) are starting to unfurl above deep, olive green, stout foliage.
This is a picture of the plant in late winter of this year but I wanted to include it to show how beautiful and long lasting the flowers are (they'd been blooming for several months by the time this picture was taken). This species of hellebore is one of the earliest bloomers, starting in December, as it's name indicates. What one refers to as a flower for a hellebore is technically not a flower but is a group of five petal-like sepals. The sepals, or flowers, vary in color from species to species, ranging from off-white, apple-green, slate-plum and some with picote (pink or red rim along the rim of the sepal). Once you get into hybrids you enter a whole new world with a stunning range of colors and flower characteristics (the topic of future posts to be sure). The range in flower color for H. niger is much smaller: whites that blush pink or shift to an apple-green with age. 

The thick, pedate leaves grows 6-8" in height and mature clumps can grow to be well over a foot in width. The foliage is evergreen and has thick stems which, unlike H. x hybridus, you ought not cut back in the winter or the plant well suffer for it. I wait to remove the old, low growing leaves until they lay down on the ground, turn black/brown and die. The flowers are forward facing, and held well above the leaves, which are low to the ground, making them a bright star of the bed in the winter.

Like most hellebores, H. niger prefers to grow in alkaline soil which one is hard-pressed to find in Western Washington (high annual rainfall makes for acidic soil on the west side of the Cascades). Generally speaking, you can get away without adding lime around hellebores, but they do perform much better in our region if you do. Christmas Rose also prefers part-shade to full shade and will work well under deciduous or coniferous trees. As with all plants, make sure you carefully water them in the spring and summer the first several years in the ground, especially if planted at the base of trees where they will have to compete for water.

There is nothing like seeing a hellebore in full bloom in the winter and there are so many different species and hybrids - it boggles the mind. Many people have devoted their professional careers and private gardens to the study, cultivation and adoration of these beautiful little plants. They have been experiencing a real surge in popularity over the past decade as more and more varieties have become commercially available. I love introducing people to hellebores for the first time as I am almost certain to get a "Ohhhhh, what a beautiful plant! That blooms in the winter?!" along with a wide smile. It's true, we look for the light at the end of the tunnel of a long winter, and for me, that first glimmer of light is usually seen reflected off of the lovely flowers of the hellebore.

So as the sun rises low and hurries across the southern sky this winter, casting long shadows in its wake, look for the bright lights in your garden and remember that spring isn't too far away.