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Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 at 01:01 PM

Hellebores brighten even the gloomiest days

By Valerie Easton
Special to The Seattle Times

HELLEBORES ARE addictive. As with earrings and vases, shoes and apps, you find yourself on a slippery slope once you get your first one.

The thought of carpeting the winter and early spring garden with fresh, pretty flowers warms a gardener's winter-wilted heart. Add to that evergreen foliage, dependable re-bloom and flowers that cut well for bouquets (split the stems up a couple of inches) and no wonder we're hooked on hellebores.

Do you remember a decade ago when yellow hellebores looked exotic, and the first dark purple flowers were a revelation in depth of color? Then consider the newest hellebores, like 'Harlequin Gem.' It has creamy double blossoms complexly patterned in warm raspberry. And to think you can grow that perfection, outdoors, right now, in muddy and even frosted soil ...

Many of the most exciting hellebores, including 'Harlequin Gem,' are bred right here in the Northwest by Marietta and Ernie O'Byrne at their home and nursery in Eugene, Ore. Inspired by the color range coming out of England in the 1980s, Marietta began breeding hellebores when most of us had never heard of them. The work is slow, because it takes the seed a year to germinate and a couple more years for the plants to bloom. But the O'Byrnes persisted, and now supply our gardens with a line of sumptuous hellebores under the name Winter Jewels. They've bred the first apricot-toned hellebores, and the deepest maroons. Their plants are vigorous and disease-resistant, and the flowers face outward or up instead of nodding shyly downward as many of the older strains do.

While we start out coveting hellebores for their early bloom time, we keep planting more because they're low maintenance. Not that hellebores are perfect. How come no one ever talks about how aggressively they seed? I can't tell you how many hellebore seedlings I've pulled. If they weren't hellebores, we'd call them weeds.

But really, that's the only complaint I can muster about hellebore hybrids. Some of the other types are more problematic, like H. niger, which can be slow to thrive, and the Corsican hellebores, which grow huge and splay open unattractively.

Most important for success is planting them in the right spot. Hellebores are long-lived and resent being moved. They do best in partial shade. Dig in some compost, then leave them alone except for water and mulch in the first couple of years. Once established, hellebores are drought-tolerant, deer-resistant and self-sufficient.

The biggest hellebore mistake I see? Dotting them about the garden. As beautiful as each blossom is, hellebores have little impact unless planted in swathes or masses.

Plant them along walkways, in pots so you can admire them close up, and next to garden lighting so they're visible at dusk and on gloomy days. As attractive as slate gray, purple, plum and maroon hellebores are, they disappear in the garden unless set against lighter green leaves, variegated or golden foliage. I've had luck surrounding dark hellebores with golden ground covers or pairing them with the evergreen winter daphne (Daphne odora 'Marginata').

One of the most joyful and gratifying of gardening tasks this time of year, even when it means kneeling in the muck, is to cut back tattered old hellebore leaves to reveal the new buds about to open. And so the gardening year begins again.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.


PHOTOS COURTESY OF TERRA NOVA NU
Helleborus 'Harlequin Gem'




PHOTOS COURTESY OF TERRA NOVA NU
H. 'Amber Gem'




PHOTOS COURTESY OF TERRA NOVA NU
H. 'Onyx Odyssey'




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