Monday, September 21, 2009

Thoughts Of Wintry Hellebore

Helleborus - Hellebore - Lenten Rose
A flower that appears in very cold weather is, understandably, an object of wonder.  It seems, also, that upon closer notice wonders never cease, inspiring awe and sometimes suspicion.

Helleborus (pronounced "hel-leh-BORE-us") is a fine example.  A member of the Ranunculaceae family, Helleborus is a genus of 20 species native to much of Europe, the Mediterranean region, and eastward to China.  The highest concentration can be found in southeastern Europe.  The common name is Hellebore (pronounced "HELL-uh-bore).  Other names given to various species include Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose, and Bear's-Foot.

The exact meaning of Helleborus appears to be a mystery, though I'm speculating that it might be derived from two Greek words, hellas meaning "Greece" and borrhas meaning "the north." It makes sense to me since Helleborus is concentrated in the Balkans.

Medicinal plants inspire awe and sometimes suspicion.  How is it that something possessing the power to heal may also possess the power to kill, at once beneficent and malignant?  Though known to be toxic, various hellebores have been used for many centuries for treatment of insanity, paralysis, gout, cardiac and respiratory ailments, as a diuretic and purgative.

Hellebores have been ascribed with symbolism in art, literature and lore.  In Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Hidden Language of Flowers, Peter Loewer noted that "they were thought to have magical powers because they bloomed in very cold weather, and if blooms appeared before Christmas it presaged a bountiful year ahead.  Because the roots are not edible, they are thought to contain evil spirits, hence the darker meanings of scandal or slander."

Sydney Dobell (1824-1874), in Balder, mused of "hellebore, like a girl-murderess, green-eyed & sick with jealousy, & white with wintry thoughts of poison."

Finally, hellebores sometimes have the reputation of being very difficult to grow and suitable subjects for expert gardeners only.  Not so.  The most popular species in cultivation is H. orientalis and its hybrids.  Presently, most that are commercially available are simply named H. x hybridus plus whatever the name of the cultivar.  Because it is so easy to grow, the Perennial Plant Association named H. x hybridus the 2005 Perennial Plant of the Year.

Hybrid hellebores are cultivated as deciduous to evergreen ground cover perennials.  Plant height is up to 18".  Foliage is usually dark green and deeply lobed.  Flower colors range from light green or white to shades of pink or burgundy.

They thrive in partial to full shade in USDA climate zones 4 through 9 in slightly moist, well-drained, humusy soils with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.  If exposed to direct sun at all, it should only be in the morning.  Hellebores will tolerate some drought once established.

Plant them in cottage gardens, naturalized in shade gardens and woodland settings where they combine well with ferns, Aquilegia, Convallaria and hostas.  Because of the long history of medicinal use, gardeners who collect medicinal plants often include them in their collections.  The rich history and symbolism are other reasons for growing them.

Again, it's important to note that all parts of Helleborus should be considered very toxic, so treat with appropriate caution.  On a positive note, hellebores are deer-resistant.

It is always a good idea to have your soil tested before cultivating and planting.  Carry a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a small fee, you will receive a report on mineral content and pH.

If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 5-10-15 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants 12" to 18" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 3" deep.

The garden inspires a sense of awe, wonder and sometimes solicitude; especially so with Helleborus in the shade.  Experience it.

Return to Hellebore at goGardenNow.com.

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