Hellebores are the simple and handsome solution to the challenge of gardening in shade. It is character and substance that sustain a garden in the dappled light under trees or in the long shadow of the neighbors’ house, and hellebores have plenty of both. These evergreen or semi-evergreen perennials bloom in winter and very early spring, usually before the daffodils dare to, when the garden is all twigs and promises. Hellebore flowers last for weeks, and the plants, which spread to about two feet across and stand nearly two feet tall, hold their own in the garden through the summer.
Hellebores are members of the buttercup family, which includes ranunculus and columbines. Not so long ago, they were considered connoisseurs' plants, with a reputation for shy, downward-facing blooms. New hybrids have flashy flowers of pure white, soft pink, smoky plum, or deep burgundy. You can even find creamy yellow flowers speckled with red, and ruffled double blooms.
Helleborus niger, often called Christmas rose, is the earliest of the hellebores to bloom, with white or very pale green cupped flowers, sometimes with a pink blush. Snow-white ‘Double Fantasy’, which blooms in mid winter, lifts its clusters of flowers above a spreading mound of foliage.
The Lenten rose, (H. orientalis or H. hybridus), is the most popular hellebore, with charming outward- and slightly upward-facing blooms in late winter. As the flowers mature, the delicate stamens drop off but the petal-like sepals hang on, enveloping clusters of seed pods in a dramatic cloak. The wine-tinged new growth and dusky blooms look very pretty with epimediums and their pale yellow flowers, with daffodils of all kinds, and with ferns and Solomon's seal.
Corsican hellebores are especially sturdy plants with soft white flowers that fade to green.
All hellebores thrive in loamy soil enriched with plenty of compost. They grow vigorously around the skirts of shrubs, and they adapt gracefully to the challenging conditions of dry shade under mature trees. The Christmas rose prefers a little lime; experts recommend sprinkling limestone chips around the crowns of plants. Lenten roses and Corsican hellebores thrive in all soil types. Even young plants produce lots of long-lasting flowers.
Hellebores are very long-lived plants: once they have settled into their shady spot, you can count on them for years to come.