The Enchanting Hellebore
Latin Name Pronunciation: hel-eh-bor’us
These evergreen plants bring an architectural quality to the shady garden. Most bloom in early winter in mild climates and in late winter or very early spring where the ground freezes hard. Resistant to both deer and voles, they are long-lived and provide exquisite blooms at a time when flowers are a scarce delight.
- Hellebores are at their best in evenly moist well-drained soil in partial shade.
- Water well during extended dry periods; they are drought-tolerant once established.
Fertilizer/Soil and pH
- Hellebores grow best in soil enriched with copious amounts of organic matter.
- The hybrids known as Helleborus x hybridus (previously called Helleborus orientalis) prefer a soil pH close to neutral and even alkaline; add lime if your soil is extremely acid.
- The Christmas Rose (H. niger) may be slow to become established; to help it along, try a dose of magnesium in the form of Epsom salts or dolomitic limestone sprinkled around the plants.
- Plants will benefit from a light application of granular, balanced fertilizer in early spring.
Watch for slug or snail damage, and control with baits or diatomaceous earth.
Hellebores are lovely with other denizens of light shade such as:
- Phlox divaricata
They truly enliven woodland gardens. The larger, more exuberantly colored varieties or double forms are a great addition to the shady border.
- Although evergreen, the foliage often looks tattered in early spring. Prune back dead and disfigured foliage before new growth appears.
- Remove old flower stems when they decline, cutting back to basal foliage, but take care not to remove the stems of Bear’s-foot Hellebore (H. foetidus), because they carry the flower buds formed in the previous growing season.
- If seedlings are not desired, remove old flowers before the seed is set.
Although plants may be slow to settle in, once they do, they rarely need division and may resent it.
- Do not prune back now; wait until early spring.
- Mulch with salt marsh hay if desired.
Calendar of Care
- Apply a light application of balanced or slow-release fertilizer or side-dress with compost and organic amendments when new growth appears.
- H. niger may benefit from a side-dressing of Epsom salts or dolomitic lime.
- Prune back old foliage to make room for new growth.
- Transplant now if desired.
- Water well if it is unseasonably dry as plants prefer evenly moist soil.
- Watch for slug or snail damage and control if necessary.
- Remove old flower stems as they decline, and deadhead if seedlings are not desired.
- Pull out any unwanted new seedlings as hybrids may not come true from seed; move desirable species seedlings to permanent locations.
- Groom plants by removing yellow or dead leaves.
- Add lime to acid soil for H. x hybridus if a soil test shows a pH under 7.0.
- Do not prune back for winter
- A light mulch of salt marsh hay may be beneficial.
Hellebore Care Instructions
Hybrid hellebores (Helleborus X hybridus) are very tolerant and will grow well in most soils as long as the ground is not extremely dry or stagnantly waterlogged, although they usually survive even those conditions. They prefer a sheltered position in semi-shade (dense shade can reduce flowering) with a rich, moist, free draining soil. If possible, it is desirable to plant hellebores on a sloping bed, both to improve drainage and also to make it easier to look into the flowers, which naturally nod. All hellebores are deer proof.
Although very tolerant of soil type, hellebores are deep-rooted and to flower at their best, they appreciate plenty of nutrients and adequate moisture. They will benefit from being planted in deeply dug soil improved with plenty of humus, in the form of leaf mold, compost, or old manure. We mulch once a year in winter with a local compost called Steer Plus, but be careful to not bury the crown of the plant with mulch.
Remove Old Foliage and Stems
Remove the old faded flower stems, unless you require seed, or you will have an excess of seedlings beneath your mother plant. Remove all foliage from hybrid hellebores and the deciduous species in December or January. This is done to improve the appearance of the plant (the old leaves eventually die, slowly), making it easier to see the flowers and also prevent the spread of any existing disease to the newly emerging flower stems and leaves.
Disease and Pests
Hellebores are generally trouble-free and easy-to-grow plants. Some of the occasional problems that they may experience are fungal diseases, aphids, and slug or snail damage. We do not spray against fungus in the garden but prefer to cull plants that show weakness to disease. If aphids become a significant problem there is a spray sold by Gardens Alive called Pyola Oil or Take Down, available on Amazon, that is a mixture of pyrethrins and canola oil that is very effective and is acceptable to organic growers.
Hellebores are typically long-lived plants. The regular mulching helps keep them healthy and free-flowering. They do not usually need to be divided for the health of the plant, but if you wish to transplant or divide hellebore, that is best done in September or October. Dividing is best accomplished by digging the whole plant, washing the crown free of soil in order to make it easier to see what you are doing, and then cutting between the growth buds with a sharp knife. If you leave at least three buds in each division, the plant will recover more quickly.
Sow hellebore seed as soon as possible (preferably in June to August). We use a mix of 75% Black Gold® and 25% perlite. Sow the seed thinly and cover with 1/4″ (6mm) layer of #2 chick grit (obtainable at any feed store). Leave the pot out in the open, not in direct sun, and do not allow them to dry out. When germination has occurred, bring them into a cold frame or cool greenhouse, taking care against possible damage from slugs or mice. Transplant into small pots when the first true leaves appear and they are large enough to handle. We use 4″x4″x6″ band pots and a product called Patio Potting Soil formulated by a local forest products company, Rexius. Pot on as required. Liquid feed regularly from about six weeks after potting on.
Linda Beutler and her commercial floral design students impart their wisdom below with the best way to preserve your Helleborus X hybridus blooms.
Cut Hellebore Water Recipe:
In a quart of water, add one packet (which equals one level, not heaping) tablespoon of commercial floral preservative, and 2 tablespoons of ethyl alcohol. NOTE: the CCC students used ethyl alcohol containing acetone. For the next best results you could swap isopropyl alcohol for ethyl alcohol (95% ethyl alcohol is available at Oregon Liquor stores). Use only mature flowers with seed already forming.
- Leave the hellebore stems as long as possible and harvest the stems when the nectaries have fallen off the primary (first to open flower, with secondary buds open or opening).
- Always cut the ends of any cut plant stems at an angle.
- Don’t be skimpy with the water; you want at least half of the stem length submerged. In our experiments, we used vases that held a quart of solution. Helleborus X hybridus stems don’t have bark or a tough outer sheath so some water/solution will be absorbed through the sides of the stems as well as being drawn up the cut end.
- Don’t overdose the formula be adding more commercial preservative of alcohol. This isn’t like cooking with garlic—more is not better.
- If the hellebore stems develop a “cooked” looking cut end after a week or so, simply pull them from the water and cut that portion of the stem off.
- If you don’t have commercial preservative, you will still notice better vase life for hellebores by just using the alcohol, still only 2 T. per quart of water.
Hellebore Care Instructions for Growers
In order to produce blooming plants in the quickest time possible, it is essential that the plants are not stressed during growth, which will usually result in the cessation of growth for that season. These stressors may include but are not limited to, water stress, heat stress, restriction of root room, or lack of essential nutrients. With no check in their growth, between 25-35 percent can be brought to flower in one year after the first transplant, depending upon your climate. The methods we use to achieve these results follow.
Transplant after the first true leaf appears. Hellebores make strong, healthy root systems very quickly and, for that reason, we recommend a deep pot for transplanting. We use a 4″ X 4″ X 6″ cross bottom band pot for growing on to gallon or larger. If you are producing liners, you would, of course, have to use a smaller pot or cell pack, but the critical factor is the depth of the pot.
At every transplant, we fertilize with Osmocote Plus, 15-9-12, 8-9 month release. Hellebores are heavy feeders.
Being professionals, you undoubtedly don’t need this advice, but your employees may: It is important to only handle the tender young seedlings by the leaves or UPPER stem and never the roots or the stem as it meets the roots. That seems to be the entry point of fungal infections and any damage inflicted will make the plants more subject to infection.
The planting mix will vary with the regionally available materials, climate, watering regime, etc., and is probably not even worth discussing since it depends so much on your local variables. Suffice it to say that it should provide enough “structure” for good drainage and air to the roots and hold sufficient nutrients for the quick growth of the plants.
The newly transplanted seedlings are somewhat sensitive to damping off and/or botrytis. As a preventative, we have had good results using a spray of compost tea, or Zerotol, or Rhapsody (Cease is essentially the same—a bacterial). For the treatment of actual disease problems in the juvenile seedlings, or later in the season (botrytis during the next winter, for example), we vary the use of Palladium, Chipco, Decree WDG, and 26GT fungicide. It is important to vary the class of chemical in order to prevent the buildup of immunity.
We begin transplanting the young plants from band pots into gallons about the end of July, transplanting those that show strong root growth at the bottom of the pot (an advantage of the cross bottom bands, the roots are readily visible). We fertilize with the slow release Osmocote Plus 15-9-12, 8-9 mos. again, at this time.
Information on the Genus Helleborus
Hellebores are herbaceous perennials and are members of the family Ranunculaceae, the Buttercup family. Other notable members of the family are Delphinium, Clematis, Hepatica, Anemone, Ranunculus, Aquilegia and Thalictrum.
No hellebores are native to the U.S. There are about 15 species, depending upon who is counting, distributed from the British Isles, east through Europe to Asia Minor with one outlying species in China. They are notoriously difficult to identify and classify, being quite variable in nature.
They generally grow on the edges of deciduous woodland slopes or in shaded clearings among scrub or rocks. They are also found on apparently open, sunny slopes. These may later become overgrown and hence shaded in summer. Hellebores are frequently found in limestone areas, but they can grow in both acid and alkaline soils.
Caulescent and Acaulescent
There are two main categories of hellebores: stemmed (caulescent) and stemless (acaulescent). The stemmed species produce clumps of numerous rather tall stems. Each stem carries several evergreen leaves. On the top of these stems, in early to mid-winter, racemes of flowers appear. After the flowers are spent, this stem will never blossom again. You will notice the following year’s stems emerging from the ground at about the time of flowering. You can remove the entire stem to the ground level, best done before a lot of energy goes into seed production, in early to mid-May.
The stemless species all have individual leaves and flower stems arising directly from the ground. The flowers of the stemless species and hybrids will blossom whether the foliage has been removed, or not. Therefore, to allow for easier enjoyment of the flowers, and to rejuvenate the foliage on a yearly basis, we like to cut off all foliage of the stemless species and hybrids by about the first of December.
The Helleborus family has many varieties and hybrid species, and like the other infamous herbs of the Poison Path, it has an extensive history in medicine and magic. Mention of this plant goes all the way back to ancient Greece and was said to have been a common prescription of Hippocrates for insanity and mania. In the Greek language, its name refers directly to its poisonous nature. (helein-“to kill” and bora “food”) It is also mentioned by Pliny the Elder, Cornelius Agrippa and found in Faustian rituals of exorcism and the coercion of spirits.
It is a member of the Ranunculaceae family, the Buttercups, which are all generally poisonous to one degree or another. The toxins within the plant are Helleborin, which gives the plant its burning-acrid taste. The horrible taste makes it difficult for one to unintentionally consume enough of the plant to be lethal, usually resulting in it being spit out before its intense purgative effects set in. Helleborcin, is another toxin within the plant that has a sweet sort of taste, acting similar to the highly active cardiac poisons found in Digitalis (Foxglove).
Poisoning by this plant causes tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, and thirst. It also includes a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, followed by violent emesis (vomiting) and a slowing of the heart rate until it causes death by cardiac arrest. It will also burn the eyes and irritate the skin when in direct content with the juice of the plant, including contact with bruised leaves. Chemically it is related to the venom found in certain toad skin.
As with many of the most well-known plants of the Witch’s Garden, Hellebore has a dark and otherworldly beauty. The varied colors of its unique flowers are deep violets, dark reddish pink, and pale green to white. The long-lasting flowers have a more leaflike appearance than that of a delicate flower petal. The seeds are difficult to germinate, but once established the plant cares for itself. For this reason, it was traditionally planted above graves in Europe. The petals catch the moonlight giving them a ghostly glow. The plant oftentimes does not bloom until its third year, but it is one of the earliest blooming flowers. Blooming between December and February Hellebore was named Christmas or Lenten Rose.
History and Folklore of Black Hellebore: Helleborus niger
In Christian plant lore, this dark herb was ironically seen as a symbol of innocence. It was considered holy and able to ward off evil spirits. According to their mythology, the Christmas Rose grew from the tears of an empty-handed girl in the presence of the Christ child, for which she had no gift.
In medieval esoteric and occult lore, we find the more magically appropriate astrological associations applied to this plant. These connections more closely represent its uses and myths from the ancient world.
During antiquity in ancient Greece, Hellebore was called Melampodium, after the physician and soothsayer Melampus who used it to cure king Argos’ daughter of madness induced by maenads. These women were the much-feared worshippers of Dionysus who were known for their ecstatic frenzies they would achieve during worship. Whether she was actually mad, or just an independent woman worshipping with others like her is unknown.
As one of the classical witchcraft herbs of medieval lore, Helleborus has associations with necromancy, the Dark Goddess, raising and banishing spirits, and appeasing spiritual forces when they have been disturbed. It can be found mentioned in medieval grimoires attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and Cornelius Agrippa, who places it under Martial and Saturnian rulership. It also has a connection to elemental water, and its subterranean qualities, when it acts as a portal to the otherworld, sub-conscious, and lower realms.
In medieval medicine, it was used to cure demonic possession, madness, and epilepsy. At that time these ailments would have been looked at like one and the same. The powdered roots and leaves would be smoldered to calm one already in a frenzy. It had a reputation for its connection to madness and mental deterioration, creating a catatonic-like state in those suffering the madness of maenads, however, in healthy individuals, it would induce similar symptoms, which speak to its homeopathic uses. The idea is that in small amounts homeopathic remedies would cure the symptoms that in large amounts it would cause. It has been used in curses of insanity, and held as the antidote for its cure.
On its diverse applications in magic, ritual, and sorcery
One of its more interesting mentions in magic; is that the plant would be used by magicians to alter or change the nature of a particular plant either through grafting living Hellebore to the plant itself or powdering it and using it as a fertilizer. Through this magical transference, it was said to give the plant and its fruits unpleasant and unhealthy qualities. This would make it a useful herb in charms of blighting, in order to curse a particular piece of land, which was often a popular accusation during the Witch Craze in Europe.
An interesting piece of French lore, mentioned by Mrs. M. Grieve, is about a sorcerer who utilized its powers of invisibility to move about unseen through enemy lines by throwing the powdered plant in the air about himself. The plant has also been used in rites of exorcism, banishment, and protection. It can be applied in curse work, and spells of revenge. In addition to its powers of altering perception, it has been connected with rebirth and gaining intelligence through spiritual means. If there was one poisonous plant that most closely reflected the nature of the medieval magician and his machinations, it would be Helleborus. Similar in the was that Deadly Nightshade has connections with the witches of medieval folklore, hellebore seems to be the perfect male counterpart to this concept.
In Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, he associates Black Hellebore under the rulership of Mars and Saturn, suggesting its use in the fumigation of talismans of the same correspondence. In medieval astrology, the infamous Hermes Trismegistus connects the plant to the Demon Star Algol. Well known for its malefic attributions, this star is found in the constellation of Perseus representing the head of the slain Medusa. According to medieval hermetic manuscripts, the juice of Black Hellebore and Wormwood, placed under a diamond; under the influence of this fixed star would bring about hatred and courage, protection and preservation of the body, bringing vengeance to all one’s enemies. The Book of Hermes on the 15 Fixed Stars. As an amulet of protection, the black roots of H. nigra can be prepared and carried like a mandragora.
This beautiful plant is still popular in rustic gardens and medieval apothecaries. It brings otherworldy beauty to the otherwise frozen skeleton of the winter garden. There is something hypnotic about this plant, and further research will show that many individuals are passionate about this rustic plant.