The Magical Winter Beauty of Hellebore

These plants are a rare sight, but not because they are hard to grow. It's due to the difficult propagation of a very slow growing plant.

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Hellebore flowers tilt down to keep their pollen dry as they bloom often in inclement weather. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / DIY Network)

By Maureen Gilmer
DIY Network

Similia similibus curatur is Latin for "likes are cured by likes."

It explains why a dog bite was once treated by applying to the wound a clump of the hair cut from the offending canine. It also explains why the supremely poisonous hellebore was believed "the hair of the dog" to treat cattle that ingested a poisonous plant, usually hellebore.

Parkinson's 1641 cure states that a "piece of the (hellebore) root being drawn through a hole made in the ear of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same hour." It is frightening to learn that hellebore first appeared in English cottage gardens as a violent cathartic herb given to children to expel the worms. Sadly, it killed more than it cured. This was no secret to the Greeks who routinely poisoned their enemies' drinking water with hellebore.

Steeped in fear and loathing, the intense winter beauty of hellebore seems magical because it blooms out of season. Named for their period of bloom, the Christmas Rose, (Helleborus niger) and the later Lenten Rose, (Helleborus orientalis) flower when little else is growing in gardens.

These plants are a rare sight, but not because they are hard to grow. It's due to the difficult propagation of a very slow growing plant. Even after years of European breeding, they remained scarce there. Division was infrequent and cloning still a challenge, so the only choice was Nature's way--from seed. This requires a laborious process of hand pollination of flowers of stock plants grown in the field. Afterwards each developing seed head must be covered with a little cloth bag to catch the seed as it bursts from the capsule in June. An enormous quantity of stock plants and many hours of painstaking care is needed to create a single crop of seed.

Fortunately for gardeners in the U.S. the hellebores are coming. All roads lead to this weird guy who moved to the top of a mountain in West Virginia in 1972 and was caught in a time warp. Barry Glick in his Grateful Dead tie-dye, reverence for theatrics and hair became a hellebore junky. Maybe it's because he digs the flowers, but it helped that the local deer wouldn't touch them either. Anyone who lives in deer country knows they will eat anything that's not fenced like San Quentin. Barry could plant hellebores freely in his woods, amassing a huge collection. He now cultivates every species in the genera plus countless strains and hybrids.

Today Barry's Sunshine Farm and Gardens is home to 50,000 stock flowering plants that are a sight to behold in bloom. To get a better feel for them log on to Barry's super color web site at Marvel at the broad range of cultivars developed from a dozen key species.

The Sunshine Strain of hellebores was developed by Barry and his friends. Ask for these hybrids at your local quality garden center. They are easy to grow, and relatively pest- and disease-free. He tells us: "Plants may be grown almost anywhere in the U.S. Culture is simple. They prefer moist but not wet, rich, organic soil in full to light shade. In areas where winter is severe and there is no reliable snow cover, a mulch of shredded hardwood bark provides a warm blanket. They are greedy feeders, and when using Osmocote use the highest range. A (soil) PH 5.5 to 7.0 is fine."

Seeing them grow in Barry's woods tells the whole story because they appear to have naturalized there. They find great companions among snowdrops, bleeding heart, trillium, primrose and foamflowers. There is little doubt that the new hellebores will be the hottest new plants for American shade gardens.

Thanks to Barry and others, Hellebores are throwing off their dark history of poison and bathing in pure yellow Sunshine.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at For more information, visit : or Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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