Do hellebores need a defense? I wouldn’t have thought so a decade ago, but three years ago I had to defend their cultivation to a master gardener who officially advised against growing them because they were toxic to animals.  Others in the room nodded equally officiously as I felt my blood starting to boil.

Last year I defended growing them to a beginning gardener who said they were “too expensive.” And just last week I had to defend them to a good gardening friend who said she didn’t bother because “I don’t grow a winter garden.” 

Add to that all the gardeners who don’t think of them at all or only think of the outfacing modern hybrids; and I think that yes, there’s room for a somewhat robust defense of these wonderful perennials – particularly for those only just getting started.   


hellebore bouquet

So they don’t miss out on this in February.


Hellebore bowls

Or this in March.

Even a mild winter is a tough season. Rose colored glasses and a heavy coat are still standard issue for most gardeners in the last weeks of March. As winter reluctantly gives up its hold on soil, root and sanity, there is as much to ignore as to celebrate, and there’s never enough color – no matter how many bulbs were roughly planted by flashlight and drill auger in the closing moments of December.

“By March,” writes fellow Ranter Scott Beuerlein, “anything left in the garden for the purpose of providing ‘winter interest’ can only be identified by its dental records.” I hate to admit it, but it’s one of his best lines.

The relative nakedness of daffodils, crocus and snowdrops against a still apocalyptic tundra is certainly cheering; but when glasses are removed, it becomes apparent that what’s needed to tie them all together is a freshness and vigor that evergreen foundation shrubs can’t provide.

Solving problems one garden at a time

For decades, the presence of a few hellebores in a garden signified either competence or inheritance, particularly if they bloomed early in December or January as Christmas roses (usually the pure white H. niger or an H. niger cross).

Non-gardeners tend to think of the entire genus as Lenten roses, though it seems pointless to be officious over common names. I recently found out that the Hellebore Gold Collection marketing team has come up with the new ‘common’ name of snow rose to label some of their hybrids and further cloud our minds.  [insert annoyed eye-roll] Is that to be capitalized do you think?


Joker hellebore

One of the “Snow Roses” in my garden – HGC® ‘Joker’


joker hellebore

A wider angle


Hellebores were your gardening grandmother’s secret – a deer resistant (not deer-proof!), shade-tolerant, evergreen perennial with solid hardiness in USDA Zones 4-8 (and a little wiggle room on both ends for some species).  Those in the know, knew. Others grew hosta and wept when the deer showed up. “The flower most capable of escaping the envious, sneaping frost is the hellebore.” writes Elizabeth Lawrence in her 1961 book, Gardens In Winter.

Even the most down-market of hellebore species with a penchant for promiscuity – H. orientalis – is a charming and versatile plant.  Bitter winds might burn the clumps of leathery, palmate foliage; but vibrant green leaves will unfurl in late winter to replace them, while copious flowers open in colors from white-green to plum-charcoal, depending on the subspecies. 

Years of interbreeding means that most garden-variety H. orientalis are now mostly H. x hybridus – but then so are some of the very dissimilar outfacing named cultivars, which illustrates the point that Cole Burrell and the late Judith Tyler made in their excellent book Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide: “To say that the taxonomy of Hellborus species is in flux is putting it mildly.”

I couldn’t tell you the parentage of those that fill in the gaps under my winter berries and continue to proliferate without shame, but I know that I love them.


Late winter - the Rapture daffs are just starting to break through.


A secret weapon in the early spring garden

Their foliage fills the tragedy of empty, ravaged soil in part sun or shade, and provides a stunning backdrop to bulbs and emerging perennials. Later, the hellebore’s shade tolerance and relative strength allows it to transition to groundcover as surrounding deciduous shrubs and trees put on leaves and spring turns into summer.  Seedlings emerge in late winter as numerous as stars.  

For those that have had a hillside of H. x hybridus for years, it becomes second nature to pull out drab seedlings (they can take three years to flower), and select for new and interesting colors and flower forms. But for the newbie with only a few plants, a hellebore seedling is a present to be unwrapped – a treasured and precious surprise. I’m still in the save-and-sift-seedlings stage of my gardening life.

Winter flowers, spring flowers, shade tolerant, deer resistant, great foliage, lotsa babies. That’s a lot to love.


hellebore basket

A collection of H. x hybridus blossoms destined for a short lived floating display. For longer displays, harvest when the sepals are more ripened and thicker.


But there is a caveat, as there often is with most things that seem too good to be true. Though the flowers of many hellebore species age slowly with the strength and grace of Audrey Hepburn, they don’t share her posture, nodding towards the soil and forcing the gardener to bend over to fully view them. For this reason, gardeners often float the sturdy blossoms in bowls or trays to create exquisite winter tablescapes and establish instant horticultural credentials over dinner.

It’s the reason I forced my seatmate on a recent Perennial Plant Association bus tour to share our space with a four-foot shallow metal tray from Terrain.  I had hellebores on the brain when I ponied up that cash.  You can see a reel of putting together a tray of floating hellebores on my Instagram account @marianne.willburn


hellebore tray

My Terrain tray fulfilling its destiny.

Enter the Cover Girls

Over the last decades, excellent breeding programs in the U.K, Europe and the United States have expanded the gardener’s palette with delicate, beautiful flowers on strong plants that tickle the collector’s spirit.  Doubles, freckles, picotees, reverse picotees, suffusions of gold…the cultivars are astonishing and beautifully illustrate the sentiment of award-winning Chicago container designer Howard Nemeroff “They’re the plantsman’s plant – much like the musician’s musician.”

In 2010 the patent for a new kind of hellebore was filed by German breeder Josef Heuger – a plant that held its deep rose pink blooms outward on strong, dark stems.  Its name eventually became ‘Pink Frost’  – a cross between H. niger and H. lividus. And it was a game changer – particularly in the florist world.  I remember seeing it for the first time at the Philadelphia Flower Show paired florally – if not horticulturally – with fresh flounces of Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’

Many others followed, the HGC collection was created, florists swooned; and then several years later in 2014 a patent was filed by Rodney Davey and Lynda Windsor for a plant that would become ‘Penny’s Pink’ – the flagship plant of the FrostKiss® series.  The venation in ‘Penny’s Pink’ was distinct (though curiously absent from the patent application) – a marbled white with suffusions of pink. 

FrostKiss® cultivars have worked that angle since, and it’s a gorgeous angle to work.


cole burrell

Noted hellebore expert and author, C. Colston Burrell holding up a Frost Kiss® ‘Glenda’s Gloss’ after schooling me on species and breeding programs in between talks at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show recently. Serendipitously we bumped into each other next to Christianson’s Nursery and Greenhouse’s beautiful booth – and the hellebores provided a perfect show and tell experience.


Why would you NOT want to grow them?

If you’re in the right zone and have the right spot (A dappled shade position in moisture retentive, well drained soil is ideal, but many of the newer cultivars can take a lot more sun), it’s hard for me to understand why you wouldn’t grow them, but I’ll hit the reasons given by detractors.

“They’re too expensive”

Do you have to grow the expensive hybrids to grow hellebores?  Of course not.  Thanks to the promiscuity of the afore mentioned H. x hybridus (H. orientalis) hellebores and the dissected leaf H. foetidus seedlings, I have a hillside of wonderful no named cultivars, which I just might start naming for the heck of it. 

These started out as free seedlings from friends, but over time I’ve collected a few more expensive modern named cultivars that are vegetatively propagated, most through tissue culture. ‘HGC Joel’, ‘Penny’s Pink’, ‘Pink Frost’, ‘Ice Breaker Max’, ‘Cinnamon Snow’, ‘Joker’, Dorothy’s Dawn’, ‘Glenda’s Gloss’, and ‘Molly’s White’ are all found in my garden.  But so are many of the gorgeous downfacing seedling strains from Pine Knot Farms. (Who, as an aside, are in the middle of their famous Hellebore Festival for the next two weekends.)

If you care what color/form is coming into your garden, it’s important to always buy a plant with at least one bloom as seedlings are incredibly variable. If you don’t care, you’re liable to score some amazing tiny plants with great potential – and some free plants that will still delight you.


hellebore gold strain

A once little ‘Gold Strain’ seedling from Pine Knot Farms turned out not be so gold, but absolutely beautiful – and the plant itself is a stunner.


gold bullion strain

And it can also be about the foliage – this little H. foetidus seedling from the ‘Gold Bullion’ strain has been this color right outside my kitchen window all winter.

“I don’t have a winter garden.”

Then you need to think of them as a spring plant.  Because hellebore foliage and aging blossoms are going to set off all those “spring is here” bulbs you planted, and make them look like they’re not naked and alone in the still ratty landscape.  Later the hellebores will blend beautifully into the background. See above.


hellebores and bulbs

Hellebores provide a backdrop for emerging bulbs in the early spring garden.


thalia and hellebores

Later, the foliage provides a foil to the simplicity and beauty of pure white Thalia daffodils.


“They’re toxic.”

I can’t even. 

Actually, yes I can.  I’ll just offer this mini-list of criminal offenders, once revered, now feared: Foxgloves, rhododendron, yew, Easter lilies, lily-of-the-valley, tansy, lantana, mountain laurel, rhubarb, DAFFO-FREAKING-DILLS.

Sorry, I just get so tired of this. So. Tired. 

Poisonings can happen certainly. But then so do car accidents. I still drive my car and I still grow everything on the above list and a few more.  Be responsible. Be thoughtful. But don’t let fear run (and ruin) your life.

I love this plant. It is a bridge between seasons. As I get older I love it even more and look forward to the hellebore season with great joy.  They’ll be decorating my house and garden for the next five to six weeks and I wouldn’t be without them.  Don’t let another year go by in your garden without cultivating this kind of joy.

The defense rests. – MW


hellebores in bowl

Seriously, why wouldn’t you want this?