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Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 24, 2014

Looking for signs of spring

By JEAN THOMSON, Master Gardener | Mar 07, 2013

As snow melts and the calendar page turns to March, we’ll start to look for early signs of spring. If we’re fortunate, we may spot the earliest woodland wildflowers or snowdrops in a spot planted with bulbs. Another possibility, though, is blooms of a perennial that is surely underused, the versatile and elegant hellebore.

You may know the hellebore as the Lenten rose, a name that certainly signals early bloom. In fact, most hellebores bloom in March and April. Unlike most perennials, they do not go dormant, so you will see their deep green leaves persisting through winter.

Blooms are cupped and traditionally face down. However, newer varieties have been bred with outfacing flowers.

The color range of hellebores begins with purest white and moves through pinks and purples. Variegated colors are also appearing, with interesting edging and speckling effects.

For a lesser-known plant, hellebores are surprisingly easy to grow. While they are usually marketed as shade plants, they are actually quite tolerant of sun. However, both their shade tolerance and their high level of deer resistance make them excellent choices for the woodland garden.

Well-drained garden soil, perhaps slightly acidic, suits the hellebore. Most gardeners like to tidy up the plants a bit in early spring by snipping off the rattiest old leaves. That will allow the new leaves and blooms to be enjoyed more easily.

An individual hellebore bloom is truly elegant, and some hellebore enthusiasts highlight that elegance by placing a single bloom in a shallow glass bowl to float.

Gardeners can use hellebores as specimen plants or spread them over a large area as a groundcover. In addition, they are wonderful companion plants for shade plants such as hostas, alchemilla, and tiarella.

You are not likely to find a nicely potted hellebore in a big box store. Those retail outlets begin to promote perennials heavily around the time that the bloom season of hellebores draws to a close.

Top nurseries and Internet and mail order businesses, however, can supply a wonderful selection. You’ll find hellebores grouped under enticing names such as “winter thrillers” or “winter jewels.”

Such names don’t overstate the case for hellebores. Just when we’re hungry for bloom and color, the hellebore is ready to meet the need with its real beauty. As a very nice bonus for beekeepers, hellebores offer an unusually early rich source of nectar.

 

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