by Marge Talt ( mtalt(at)clark.net
For years, I had one hellebore; then I grew another from seed. I liked them, but it was not a passion. Recently, however, I've gotten well and truly hooked on hellebores. These are marvelous plants for shady gardens. Most of them don't absolutely require a lot of shade, but they tolerate it, and, in hotter climates, most appreciate it. Hellebores belong to the diverse buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, along with Aconitum (Monkshood), Aquilegia (Columbines) and Clematis.
More Than Lenten and Christmas Roses
In English speaking countries, the common names Lenten Rose (H. x hybridus [orientalis]) and Christmas Rose (H. niger) are fairly familiar to most. They are probably the most common in gardens, but by no means the only hellebores worthy of space.
I really had no idea there were so many species with different growing habits and structures. Breeders have been working for years to improve flower colors (more about this later), especially in the x hybridus or garden hybrids, usually wrongly called "orientalis hybrids". Some have also spent years trying to sort out the species.
One such is Will McLewin, a UK breeder, whom I was privileged to hear talk about his work last January. His handout provided keys to the species, hybrids and structure which I have loosely interpreted to help you understand this genus.
Just about the first thing Will said was that this is a very variable genus. Even within species, isolated from others, the leaves and flowers can vary considerably - making it very difficult to establish proper identification, even for botanists.
As you can see, most species have green flowers. But, all green flowers aren't the same color of green. Some are deep, acid green - perhaps with brown or purple staining and some are a light apple green, fading to almost cream. Others have "purple" flowers, ranging from deep, slaty purple to pinkish purple; some with lines or spots of a darker color. Only three species have white flowers. H. niger usually comes in white with a green eye, although the backs of the flowers can be pink and they can fade to pink. I've also just heard that Will McLewin has found some that are pink in the wild and sells seeds and plants, for you lucky gardeners across the pond. Whatever the color, the flowers are large and outfacing. Most species and hybrids have the typical gracefully drooping flower, needing to be turned up to appreciate the inner markings and color of the nectaries.
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Marge Talt is a garden writer and editor of the column Gardening in the Shade at Suite 101.