By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
In late winter when it may feel like winter will never end, the early blooms of hellebores can remind us that spring is just around the corner. Depending on location and variety, these blooms can persist well into the summer. However, their nodding habit can make them barely noticeable in a shade garden full of other outstanding colorful blooms. That’s why hellebore breeders have created newer, showier double flowered hellebore varieties. Continue reading to learn about growing a double hellebore.
Also known as Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose, hellebores are early blooming perennials for zones 4 through 9. Their nodding flowers are oftentimes one of the first plants in the garden to start blooming and their foliage may be semi evergreen to evergreen in most climates. Due to their coarse, serrated foliage and waxy blooms, hellebores are rarely eaten by deer or rabbits.
Hellebores grow best in part to full shade. They especially need to be protected from the afternoon sun. They will naturalize and spread when grown in the proper location and are drought tolerant once established.
Hellebore blooms are a delight to see in late winter to early spring when, in some places, clumps of snow and ice still linger in the garden. However, when the rest of the garden is in full bloom, hellebore flowers can seem inconspicuous. Some original varieties of hellebore only bloom for a short time in late winter and early spring. Double flowering hellebores remain showy and have a longer bloom time than single flowering hellebores, but require the same minimal care.
This means that for those interested in knowing how to grow a double hellebore plant, it’s no different than growing any other hellebore variety.
Many double hellebore varieties have been created by renowned plant breeders. One of the most popular, the Wedding Party Series, was created by breeder Hans Hansen. This series includes:
Another popular double hellebore series is the Mardi Gras Series, created by plant breeder Charles Price. This series has flowers that are larger than other hellebore blooms.
Also popular in double flowering hellebores is the Fluffy Ruffles Series, which includes the varieties ‘Showtime Ruffles,’ which has double maroon blooms with light pink edges and ‘Ballerina Ruffles,’ which has light pink blooms and dark pink to red speckles.
Other notable double flowering hellebores are:
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No matter what 2021 brings, we can count on our gardens to be there for us. Beyond the confines of our homes, nature’s cycles of death and regeneration continues. The seasons change, flowers bloom and fade, and our gardens need our attention.
Personally, nothing gets me through this isolating, post-holiday slump better than the anticipation of a new gardening season. Most of our gardens are neatly mulched and tucked away for winter, waiting for the warmer days of spring to arrive.
But at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon, Marietta & Ernie O’Byrne’s garden is bursting with color even in the middle of January. Hundreds of winter-blooming hellebores adorn their garden and nursery, showcasing their expertise in breeding new hellebore varieties.
Just when we need them most, hellebores fill our winter garden with moody purples, dusky greens, peachy pinks and bright whites and I look forward to their delicate blooms all year long.
Not only do hellebores make a beautiful landscape plant, but they make great cut flowers too. To make them last longer in the vase, it’s recommended that you harvest mature flowers that are beginning to produce seed pods after dropping their stamens.
Last year, I was lucky enough to make the trip to Marietta & Ernie O’Byrne’s Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon, for their Hellebore Open Garden Day. They open their garden and nursery in February for onsite sales, with some select retail locations offering some of their products. (Visit their website to review the precautions required for the 2021 Open Garden Days due to the pandemic)
During the plant sale, the O’Byrnes graciously opened their garden for tours, as well, so after snagging 5 precious new hellebore plants, my husband and I walked around their garden. Even in February, it was full of botanical treasures and artful plantings.
The O’Byrnes are meticulous plant breeders, creating exquisite new varieties of hellebores, trilliums, podophyllum, and others.
Additionally, their book A Tapestry Garden, documents their journey of transforming their dry, sandy 1.5 acre property into a thriving garden.
I had a phone conversation with Marietta & Ernie to get to know more about their specialty hellebores. The conversation has been edited here for you to get to know them a little better.
People are hungry for colors in winter. If hellebores were blooming in July or August, it would be harder, but now they don’t have any competition. When it’s gray in Oregon, you can look out the window and see beautiful yellows and purple colors exploding.
Hellebores started blooming in December at Northwest Garden Nursery
If you look back at the old pictures of some of our first hellebores, you would say, “Oh well those aren’t that exciting”.
But at the time, it was very exciting!
There was very little breeding going on in the States so we traveled to Europe for our seeds and breeding stock.
In the early 2000’s, a German breeder traveled here and gave lectures and brought hellebores. She brought over a double flower and it was so exciting because nobody here had ever seen a double. All the breeding happened in England, Germany, Holland, but nothing much here.
Now when I look at that picture of the first double, I realize it was a wimpy plant! But we were able to start making our first crosses with doubles. It was a big jump forward for doubles, and doubles outsell singles.
We brought plants home from our travels to Europe, but we had ideas of what we wanted in our hellebores. We crossed the German ones, we crossed the English ones, because I had an idea.
‘Painted’, one of their gorgeous double varieties
I wanted a pink double. A plant that didn’t exist. It took years and we’re still improving our varieties.
Those first crossings of doubles were ugly in our opinion, but other people loved them! There is often a difference between what we consider beautiful as breeders and what the public likes.
Our ‘Golden Sunrise’ variety could be considered a failure, but it shouldn’t be!
It has beautiful chartreuse, yellow foliage that looks beautiful in the winter garden. We have not been able to convince the wholesalers to buy this one regularly and I think it is because their maintenance crews think the yellow foliage means the plant is unhealthy. They’ll have thousands of hellebore plants in the greenhouse and see green, green, green – but then they see the yellow Golden Sunrise foliage and it stands out.
It has a fantastic yellow flower and brilliant yellow foliage. In general, people who come to our nursery love Golden Sunrise, but it’s very hard for the wholesalers.
At the earliest, it takes 2 years for a seedling to flower.
We hand pollinate in January, collect the seeds in May, then sow immediately. The seeds need periods of heat and cold to sprout so it will be 2-3 years before they flower.
It can take 5-6 years from starting a seed to knowing if you have a plant that is worth keeping.
The biggest mistake is burying plants too deeply. When planting, it’s important not to bury the crown of the plant. We are careful when mulching in the garden not to bury the plants in too much compost, otherwise they won’t flower very well.
Also, hellebores need good air flow in the garden. If they are crowded in a corner without proper air flow, they are more susceptible to fungus problems.
It’s important to remove the old foliage right after Christmas before the flowers come up. The old foliage can be ratty and ugly and will cover up the flowers when they bloom. Make sure you only remove the foliage from hybrid hellebores – the flowers come up separately from the foliage so you won’t risk cutting off buds.
The flowers have a chance to show off when all the surrounding foliage is removed
They also like fertilizer. We don’t use a lot of compost to avoid covering the crown, but when I plant I put two handfuls of a slow release fertilizer in hole with the plant. It’s important that it’s organic, slow release so it doesn’t burn the plant!
Then I apply a side dressing of fertilizer throughout the year, such as fish fertilizer.
Hellebores grow well in semi-shade but can grow in full sun if you give them extra care. If the plants dry out too much, the foliage starts to look ugly.
One of my favorite combinations is a black flowering hellebore with Japanese Forest Grass ‘All Gold’. The black flowers really stand out against the bright yellow grass. I try to contrast light and dark flowers against other plants. The white hellebores look beautiful against evergreen grasses such as black mondo grass.
When you look out the window in the middle of winter, the bright yellow hellebores stand out in the shade so I often plant them around the base of trees.
I have a group of pink hellebore varieties planted around a camellia that blooms at the same time and has pink flowers. I love the combination.
It’s really important to prevent seedlings from crowding out your parent plants. Bees love hellebores and will pollinate them freely but they are not good plant breeders. If left to the bees, the flowers from any seedlings will be a muddy mix of colors and will not look like the parent plant.
It’s easy to prevent this from happening by removing all of the flowers in late April or early May before they drop their seeds. You will see the swollen seed pods and you must remove them before they burst open and spread the seeds.
If we didn’t do this our garden would be full of thousands and thousands of ugly hellebores!
I knew you were going to ask this and it’s such a hard question to answer!
‘Fire and Ice’ is one of our newer varieties. It’s an early bloomer, vigorous and healthy and makes a great garden plant. Another favorite is ‘Sun Flare’ – it has yellow flowers edged in red.
Yes, we are constantly working on improving each strain. We select the best plants of each variety to constantly improve them. I don’t like muddy colors – I like clear, pure flowers.
Another variety we are working on has very small flowers but beautiful, narrow-leaved foliage. Generally hellebore leaves are large but this one is very different than anything else.
We are partnering with Gossler Farms Nursery so people can purchase from two different locations. We won’t have any extra parking this year to limit the number of people shopping at a time.
Also, instead of limiting sales to a small window, we’re opening the nursery for extra time to prevent large groups of shoppers.
(For more information regarding their onsite sales, visit this page on their website)
Yes, our hellebores are easy to find at lots of different nurseries. Simply call and ask if they carry our Winter Jewels Hellebores.
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with the Hardy Plant Society, Marietta!
Readers, what flowers do you look forward to most this time of year? Do you have any favorite varieties?
2020 was a tough year for us all. How did your garden boost your spirits through the ongoing pandemic? Please share in the comments below!
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ARTICLE BY: JOANNE FULLER Joanne Fuller is an HPSO member and volunteer who gardens in NE Portland. *** When I moved to my home in urban NE Portland 27 years ago I was not a gardener. I'd had house plants, and had gardened as a child, but I never owned a home or had a space to garden outside. The…
ARTICLE BY: AMY CAMPION Amy Campion is a HPSO Board Member, freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She blogs about gardening at amycampion.com. *** A special Portland garden I discovered Paul Bonine’s garden entirely by accident one day. It was March of 2014—less than a year since I’d moved to Portland from Cincinnati—and I was walking around North Portland, taking plant…
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WEDDING PARTY® 'TRUE LOVE' — Buy now from Proven Winners
Part of the Wedding Party® series, 'True Love' bears 3 to 3-1/2" rich maroon-red double flowers. The Wedding Party® series showcases double-flowered selections in numerous shades.
WEDDING PARTY® 'WEDDING BELLS' — Buy now from Proven Winners
Another selection from the Wedding Party® series, 'Wedding Bells' has 2 to 2-1/2" clear white double flowers.
HONEYMOON® 'ROMANTIC GETAWAY' — Buy now from Proven Winners
From the Honeymoon® series, 'Romantic Getaway' blooms with 3" single white flowers with dramatic red patterned centers.
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'Sandy Shores' has delicate, 2-1/2 to 3" single, pale apricot flowers with rosy pink backs. Another selection from the Honeymoon® series.
Part of the Winter Thriller™ series introduced by Chris Hansen of Great Garden Plants, the oversized, velvety-crimson flowers are widely regarded as the truest red. Dark mahogany foliage that fades to dark green is a perfect complement to the striking blooms.
PINE KNOT STRAIN DOUBLE PINK
“I am partial to any of the double-flowered forms, as the blooms last longer,” says Fritz. “The clear lavender-pink color makes this a great companion to a wide range of spring ephemerals, such as early-blooming minor bulbs and forget-me-nots.”
One of the many striking named varieties in the Winter Jewels™ series by Ernie and Marietta O'Byrne of Northwest Garden Nursery, the soft-pink double flowers are infused with shades of crimson. Fritz finds the simultaneous veining, spotting, and edging to be "particularly intriguing."
“This is the variety that people gravitate to the most in our display gardens,” notes Fritz. “It’s close to a true black and is stunning when paired with Galanthus (snowdrops).” Part of the Winter Jewels™ series.
Raspberry-mauve double blooms of this regal selection by Dan Hinkley are complemented by reddish new growth. Dramatic nodding flowers are best seen when planted on a hillside or steep slope so that they can be viewed from below.
Part of the Winter Jewels™ series, the lotus-like flowers create a tropical look. Fritz finds the bright-yellow color "cheerful, like daffodils they stand out on a cloudy day."
Introduced by Dan Hinkley, this is regarded as one of the best yellow forms. Deep burgundy flecking towards the center of the flowers makes this a striking companion to 'Kingston Cardinal'.
For landscape craftsman Jerry Fritz, Helleborus x hybridus (hybrid Lenten rose) are staples in the landscapes he designs for his clients. “Hellebores are among the earliest and certainly the most exquisite flowers in the spring garden.” Until recently however, named varieties were all but impossible to find. Advances in propagation through division, tissue culture, and hand-pollination have resulted in more diverse flower colors, forms, patterns, increased plant vigor, and larger blooms. According to Fritz, “The newer hybrids are not only accessible and collectible, they are seriously addicting as well.” With improved breeding techniques producing a seemingly endless array of new varieties in recent years, these perennial favorites are worthy of a second look.
Fritz—a well-known speaker, author, and industry expert who has been featured in many national publications and appeared on the Martha Stewart Show—trials the newest hellebore cultivars at Linden Hill Gardens, his destination plant nursery in Ottsville, Pennsylvania. “The most exciting trends right now include truer and more unusual colors (from amber to almost black), increased plant heights, outward-facing blooms, and more exotic patterns of speckling, veining, and picotee edges,” he says. “The fact that Lenten roses can be successfully grown in most zones, are low-maintenance and deer-resistant, only enhances their already sky-high appeal. For me, hellebores are an indispensable plant for any serious gardener.”