Category Archives: Early Bloomers

Here Come the Hellebores

In March, when the White Flower Farm display gardens are just waking from their winter sleep, the staff’s work detail is mostly about clearing away debris and making plans. But there is at least one notable exception: The Hellebores are showing plump buds that are ready to pop.

Hellebore buds popping up in the late winter garden.

In cold climates like ours, these rugged, beautiful perennials are one of the earliest signs of spring. Their habit of flowering in late February and March, during the season of Lent, and the Rose-like form of their blossoms, are why they are often called Lenten Roses. Gardeners prize these plants for their flowers and their foliage, and for a robust, cold-hardy disposition that makes them fuss-free, long-lived additions to any shade garden.

One of Spring’s Earliest Bloomers

Winter might not be fully over when Hellebores stoically send up their buds. Unlike other early performers that might get nicked by frosts, Hellebores are just fine in cooler temperatures. Plant them wherever you need a cheering early spring display.

The single, highly ornate flowers of Hellebore Honeymoon® ‘Rio Carnival’ can wake a garden from its winter slumber.

Hellebores come in a disarming array of colors – from pearly white and cream to butter yellow, rose, burgundy and almost black, with blossom forms ranging from single to doubles, all accented by a center of yellow stamens. Single Hellebore flowers are intriguingly complex in their anatomy but always large enough to notice from a distance. Showy doubles offer layers of petals. Many Hellebore blooms feature design details. There are freckles. There are hems and bands of contrasting colors. Breeders are developing varieties that have upward-facing flowers, which some regard as an improvement on the nodding or partially hidden blossoms that are characteristic of most earlier and classic cultivars.

The golden blossoms and buds of Hellebore Honeymoon® ‘California Dreaming’ bring the glow of sunshine to the late winter and spring garden.

The appeal of Hellebores lasts far beyond early spring. The flowers don’t fizzle when warmer weather arrives. The colorful blooms remain over an impressively long period. Months go by, and even as the flowers fade, they remain beautiful. Some would say they get better as time passes and the colors deepen or blanch.

The various colors and forms of Hellebores can be combined with splendid results. The Hellebore Honeymoon® Mix blends tones from ivory and pink to deepest red and near-black.

Ornamental Foliage for All Seasons

While Hellebore flowers often get the most attention, the glossy dark green, palmate foliage is of equal value in any shade garden. In many climates, the leaves are evergreen unless covered by snow. (In winters that are cold but not particularly snowy, Hellebore foliage may get scorched or tattered, but affected leaves can be pruned away, and as spring comes, the plants send up plenty more.)

The dark green, palmate foliage of a Hellebore, lower right, keeps its great looks all season. Here, it’s grouped with Hosta ‘June,’ left, and the golden, variegated blades of Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) ‘Aureola,’ top.

In an additional boon for gardeners, the leathery, serrated leaves are unappetizing to deer and voles (as well as other pests), which give Hellebores a wide berth.

It should be noted that Hellebore leaves, stems and roots are toxic and can cause a dermatological reaction in some people so we recommend wearing gloves and long sleeves when handling or cutting them. (Additionally, no parts of the plant should be eaten by humans.)

Hellebore Wedding Party® ‘Shotgun Wedding’ is a spectacular double with beautiful design detail on the multi-layered petals.

Caring for Hellebores

Hellebores prefer dappled shade and a compost-rich, well-drained soil. Under these conditions, they are trouble-free, but patience is imperative. These are not fast-paced perennials. Hellebores slowly but reliably gain size and bud count every year. When planting them, remember to give them sufficient space to expand. The winning formula is dappled shade and generous spacing.

In circumstances when Hellebore foliage gets beaten down by snow or tattered by the cold, some gardeners question whether to snip the foliage in autumn or wait until spring. In colder climates, you might as well snip it off in autumn and let the buds swell leafless. In warmer parts of the country, Hellebores may remain evergreen without suffering any damage. In that case, prune off leaves in late winter before the buds swell to make room for new growth. New leaves initiate rapidly no matter which way you play it.

Dividing Hellebores is not recommended. Although these plants may be slow to settle in, once they do, they rarely need division and may resent it.

Hellebore Honeymoon® ‘Paris in Pink’ pots up beautifully in a container.

Garden & Landscape Uses

Hellebores are at their best when planted in groups. Mass them in woodland areas where they will naturalize, or plant in 3’s and 5’s under trees and shrubs, along a pathway, or at the edge of a shady border. Create a dynamic display of contrasting colors, forms and blossom times by planting Hellebores with companionable shade-dwellers including Hostas, Astilbes, Hakonechloa (Japanese Forest Grass), Ferns, Heucheras, and Tiarella.

Hellebores also perform well in containers, and they make an impressive window box display with lasting appeal. Due to their thick, plentiful roots, you’ll want to afford them sufficient space for root growth and provide regular water. If winter seems too long, consider hosting a Hellebore or two indoors during the coldest months. On a windowsill, these beautiful plants blossom in the dead of winter. You’ll have flowers to carry you through the dullest days.

 

Early Spring Bloomers

Start the spring color show early in your garden with a variety of early blooming perennials, shrubs, and trees. From Witch Hazels, which blossom in late winter, and Hellebores, which generally flower before the last of the snow has melted, to Virginia Bluebells, Brunneras, and Magnolias, there are countless ways to incorporate a rainbow of rich colors into your spring planting schemes. What better way to celebrate the arrival of a new growing season?

Witch Hazel ‘Jelena’

The best antidote to winter is a planting of Witch Hazels. This genus of 5 species of upright, spreading shrubs or small trees provides the first big display of color, beginning in late February or early March and continuing for 6 weeks or more depending on the season (the flower petals sensibly curl up if the temperatures plummet). For an even earlier display, cut some branches in January and force them into bloom indoors. Plants thrive in average, well-drained soil.

We love Witch Hazels for the color they bring to winter gardens and for their hardy, problem-free nature. ‘Jelena’ is a favorite, with large ribbonlike petals that gleam coppery orange. In autumn, the shrub lights up again as its matte green leaves turn fiery shades of red and yellow.

Hellebore Gold Collection® ‘Madame Lemonnier’

Hellebores are considered aristocrats of the woodland garden. Native to Europe and western Asia, the genus contains about 20 species of perennials that bloom in early winter in mild climates and in late winter or early spring where the soil freezes hard, which makes them either the last or the first flowers in the garden. In our gardens here at the farm, they are among the first plants to bloom, bringing a splash of color to the late winter garden, sometimes blossoming amid the last of the snow. They require a moist but well-drained site under the shade of trees. Take care to amend the soil with plenty of organic matter, such as well-aged leaf mold and compost. You’ll be rewarded with long-lived, deer- and vole-resistant plants that will spread nicely on their own.

Hellebore Gold Collection® ‘Madame Lemonnier’ is a large-blossomed beauty that was discovered by a gardener in Normandy, France, where her passion for growing Hellebores turned into a full-fledged hybridization program. The plant’s 3″ upfacing blooms are rich purple red, and are held above lush green foliage on tidy, clumping plants. Under greenhouse conditions at the nursery, many of these impressive blossoms exceeded 4″. A magnificent addition to shade gardens.

Forsythia x intermedia Show Off®
Forsythia x intermedia Show Off®

It is impossible to live in a northern climate and be unfamiliar with Forsythia. The durability, vigor, and abundant yellow flowers of this early bloomer make it one of the most popular and important ornamental plants known. Forsythia Show Off® is perfect for a tight hedge or a specimen in a border. From France comes this compact variety whose golden flowers are brighter, larger, and stacked closer along the stems from soil to tip. Another bonus is the dark green foliage.

Magnolia ‘Genie’

Magnolia is a genus of over 100 species of trees and shrubs widely distributed from the Himalayas to East Asia and in the Americas. Introduced Japanese and Chinese species and their hybrids, such as the showy white Star Magnolia and the pink Saucer Magnolia, draw the most attention in spring. The handful of species native to Eastern North America include the magnificent, evergreen Southern Magnolia (M. grandiflora), Sweet Bay (M. virginiana), and the large Cucumber Tree (M. acuminata).

Magnolia ‘Genie’ is a fairly compact variety, growing 12–15’. In early spring, lightly fragrant, 6″ cupped blossoms appear on slender branches, like goblets of burgundy. A second, lighter flush of bloom arrives in midsummer when provided with full sun and adequate moisture. Bred in New Zealand, this slender, well-branched variety blooms for a longer period, even when young. An ideal small tree to feature alone, in pairs, or to put the finishing touch on a mixed border.

Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’

A friend of ours once referred to this charming plant as “prompt” because of the way its beautiful silvery green leaves break ground quite early in spring. They’re followed by a haze of tiny azure flowers, which give this plant one of its nicknames, False Forget-me-not. (It’s also sometimes known as Siberian Bugloss and Heartleaf Bugloss.) Brunnera is most at home in woodlands or along shady stream beds, where it will form a lush understory of quiet beauty. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is a standout variety with frosted leaves veined and outlined in green. The plants grow to 12″ tall and as wide, and while the blossoms provide a fleeting show, the foliage looks superb all season long.

Mertensia virginica
Mertensia virginica

Everyone loves Virginia Bluebells (M. virginica) for their sapphire blue flowers on 18″ stems that gleam from shady spots in April and May, making them an ideal underplanting for shrubs and trees. Plants thrive in deciduous shade and moist soil, where they will seed themselves to create a charming colony.

Trillium grandiflorum 'Flore Pleno'
Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’

Trilliums are spring-blooming wildflowers much prized by woodland gardeners for their delicate, 3-petaled flowers and distinctive foliage. Trillium grandiflorum ‘Flore Pleno’ is an exquisite double form that produces pure white flowers in April and May, which will enchant you and all visitors to your garden.