There are approximately 15 species of hellebores that are perennial, and the majority are native to southern and eastern Europe. Other common names for this plant are Christmas rose, and Lenten rose. Most of the hellebores readily available today are hybrid crosses of nine species giving us a wide variety of flowers in both their form and color. In addition, the variation of the leaf color and texture will add year-round interest in the garden.
Most hellebores will grow well in dappled, dry shade and well-drained soils. They are drought-tolerant, virtually trouble-free once established, and deer resistant. The hybrids do particularly well in clay soils. Even though they are native to more alkaline soils, they also grow quite nicely in our slightly acidic soils of the Southeast. Plant hellebores where they either receive morning sun and afternoon shade or dappled shade throughout the day.
The three most commonly available are the Helleborus x hybridus (Lenten rose), Helleborus niger (Christmas rose), and the Helleborus foetida (stinking hellebore aka bearsfoot hellebore). The former two have underground stems that sprout the leaves and flowers, and the latter with an erect stem that supports the leaves and flowers. All have evergreen leaves and refresh with new leaves in the spring.
The hybrids certainly give us the most choice of flower and leaf variations. Flower colors range from green, white, yellow, purple, rose, pink, red, and almost black. There are also many with multicolored blooms in single or double forms. The large, divided leaves are glossy and durable and are typically dark green, although there are variations of leaf color (red, pewter, or variegated with white or silver).
The explosion of hellebore breeding in the last decade gives us an almost unlimited choice of color combinations and flowers which stand up and smile versus the nodding flowers of many of those available in the past. Most hybrids bloom in late winter to early spring and remain flowering from one to three months. Some selections may begin blooming before Christmas.
The Christmas rose may begin blooming as early as late November but typically blooms after Christmas. This species is generally credited with pure white flowers; however, the flowers may be pink in bud or on the backs of the petals or may develop pinkish tints as the flowers age.
The stinking hellebore gets its name from the fetid odor of the crushed leaves, but otherwise, it has no odor. This plant is usually included in the garden for its texture. The leaves are highly divided into narrow, serrated lobes. It sports large clusters of green flowers in the fall for additional interest. Cut the stalks back to the ground in early spring as the flowers fade.
If you do not have the shade of trees, consider growing these near the house on the north side, where they will receive adequate light but a little direct sun. Hellebores are a great way to brighten an often dull, winter landscape and they are easy to grow. For more information, see HGIC 1185, Lenten Rose.