Growing Hellebore

This gorgeous winter bloomer delights in even the coldest temperatures.

Hellebore 'Ivory Prince'

Hellebore 'Ivory Prince'

Late winter flowers start out as burgundy-pink buds and open to reveal ivory petlas with hints of green.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Burpee

Image courtesy of Burpee

For gardeners who live in cold-weather regions, the flowerbed looks pretty dreary by December. That makes hellebores, also known as Lenten roses, a welcome sight when they open their blooms from late winter to very early spring. These evergreen plants provide subtle color until the earth warms up again.

Hellebores are easy to grow, winter-flowering members of the buttercup family. Although they’re sometimes referred to as Christmas roses or Lenten roses, they’re not true roses. You can recognize them by the distinctive saucer shape of their flowers, which may be pink, yellow, white, cream, pale green, maroon, red and near black. Some are speckled, and others have light flowers edged in darker shades. There are single as well as fully doubled forms. 

How to Grow Hellebores

Hellebore 'Stained Glass'

Hellebore 'Stained Glass'

Hellebore 'Stained Glass' is a fully doubled hellebore that turns deep purple-rose to blush as the blooms age. It grows to 18 inches high and spreads to 24 inches.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Burpee

Image courtesy of Burpee

Hellebore 'Stained Glass' is a fully doubled hellebore that turns deep purple-rose to blush as the blooms age. It grows to 18 inches high and spreads to 24 inches.

Give your hellebores a home in moist soil that gets shade to dappled shade or part sun. Depending on the variety, some prefer acid soil, while others do better in alkaline soil. These perennials, which range from one to four feet in height, and one to three feet in width, are hardy to USDA zones 4 to 9.

When the weather is dry, water your hellebores and mulch them with shredded leaves, bark chips or other organic matter. 

Deer usually leave hellebores alone (although hungry deer have been known to nibble almost anything). 

Hellebores have what some gardeners call “shy” blooms. That is, the flowers hang their heads, so you can’t see directly into them. For a better view, try planting them on higher ground, such as slopes or banks. 

To make the blooms more visible, some gardeners remove the old leaves from stemless types. If you try this, wait until the flower buds appear before cutting off the leaves. This will also help bees and other pollinators reach the blooms more easily. Pollinated flowers will self-sow, or drop seeds that sprout and produce new plants. 

One note: Although it may take a few years, seeds from hybrid hellebores will eventually produce murky-colored flowers. This is because the seeds revert to one of the parent forms used to create the hybrid. You can simply enjoy whatever you get, or — if the colors disappoint you — pull up the plants and buy new ones.

If you’re going to view your flowers from a distance, try light-colored varieties that will show up in the shade or against a background of greenery. Save the darker-colored types for planting nearby.

Try growing these varieties for beautiful winter color:

  • Helleborus ‘Stained Glass’ – A fully doubled hellebore that turns deep purple-rose to blush as the blooms age. It grows to 18” high and spreads to 24”.
  • Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ - Late winter flowers start out as burgundy-pink buds and open to reveal ivory petal with hints of green. Reaches 24” in height and spread.

Pests and Other Problems

Undemanding hellebores are seldom bothered by pests or disease. If aphids show up, sucking sap from the foliage and causing withering, try an organic control first. If the pests persist, there are systemic insecticides you can use, but be careful not to apply them to open flowers. You don’t want to harm visiting bees.

Leaf spot, sometimes called black spot, is a common hellebore problem caused by a fungus. It spreads in damp conditions, and is characterized by large, dark brown or black spots on both sides of the leaves. It’s treated by removing and destroying all affected foliage. Some gardeners try spraying with a copper fungicide as directed by the manufacturer, although some experts say the problem is incurable. Hellebores with tough, leathery leaves may survive even if they’re infected. 

Companion Plants

Make sure the plants you use alongside your hellebores need the same growing conditions: moisture and shade. While some of the companions listed below bloom after hellebore flowers are finished, their leaves provide contrast, texture and additional winter interest. 

  • Hostas – Their big, smooth leaves contrast nicely with toothy-edged hellebores. 
  • Japanese Pieris – This broad-leafed evergreen shrub has an upright growth habit that helps set off subtle hellebore blooms. 
  • Wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) – Also called windflowers, these plants with deep green leaves and white blossoms naturalize easily in shady spots where hellebores grow.
  • Corydalis – A woodland perennial, corydalis produces mounds of ferny, medium green foliage for texture.
  • Dicentras – Also called bleeding heart, this plant produces ferny, gray-green foliage. 
  • Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla) – Alchemilla’s mounds of scalloped leaves range in color from olive green to light green. 
  • Lungwort (Plumonaria) - Despite its uninviting name, lungwort’s rough leaves add interest to winter plantings. Selections with silvery-white markings or splashes are especially eye-catching.
  • Foamflower (Tiarella)– White or pink flowers are backed by clumps of lobed, evergreen leaves. Easy to grow, this plant tolerates the damp conditions hellebores prefer.
  • Barrenwort (Epimedium spp.) – This groundcover is nicknamed “fairy wings” for its attractive leaves, which hang from slender stems. 
  • Snowdrops (Galanthus) – These little bulbs send up white flowers held on bright green stems, even in the snow.

Also try pairing hellebores with early flowering woodland iris, rhododendrons, primroses and astilbe.

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