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By: Mary Ellen Ellis
Hellebore is a beautiful and hardy perennial flower with early spring blooms that brighten up gardens after a long winter. Hellebore is generally easy to grow and care for, but you may find that you sometimes get unattractive, brown hellebore leaves. Here’s what it means and what to do about it.
My Hellebore is Browning – Why?
First, it helps to understand your hellebore plants. These are evergreen to semi-evergreen perennials. Whether the greenery lasts all winter or you get hellebore turning brown depends on your climate zone. Generally, hellebore is evergreen in zones 6 through 9. In colder climates these plants may be semi-evergreen. Hellebore is hardy to zone 4, but in zones 4 and 5, it will not fully behave as an evergreen perennial.
Browning hellebore plants can usually be explained by the semi-evergreen nature in certain climates. If you are in a zone in which hellebore behaves as a semi-evergreen plant, some of the old foliage will brown and die back in the winter. The colder your climate, or a particular winter season, the more browning you will see.
If your hellebore leaves are turning brown, or even yellow, but you live in a warmer climate, in which it should be an evergreen plant, don’t assume the discoloration is a disease. If you have a spell of bad weather—colder and drier than usual—the browning is probably damage related to the conditions. Snow actually helps to protect hellebore leaves vulnerable to this damage, as it provides insulation and protection from dry air.
Whether your hellebore is browning naturally because of your climate, or it’s damaged because of bad weather, it will likely survive to grow new foliage and blooms in the spring. You can trim off the dead, brown leaves, and wait for the new growth to come back in.
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Read more about Hellebore
How to Rescue a Plant with Yellow Leaves
This ‘Josef Lemper’ hellebore needs help. I’m going to do my best.
The best thing to do, if you haven’t already, is to dig Josef up and take a look. With your clay soil and heavy rainfall, I suspect you’ll find that the roots are in trouble. The symptoms are typical of an evergreen plant that has lost the ability to transport water and nutrients up into the leaves because the roots are damaged. Healthy roots should have light-colored, fleshy tips, not black ones. If you are able to catch it in time, potting it up in a container with fresh potting soil would be the best thing to help it recuperate.
Following Rhonda’s advice, I’m going to do just that.
Here you can see the hellebore’s roots are encased in clay soil.
Despite being stressed, this hellebore is still making flower buds. It hasn’t given up, so I’m not going to, either.
The hellebores roots have been cleaned off. Can you see some blackened root tips?
I trimmed off any blackened tips, such as this one.
Spending some time in the carefully controlled environment of a container with potting soil is the best chance for this plant to recover.
When you dig it up and replant it, you should water it lightly to settle it in, then not again until the soil surface begins to dry. If you are still deluged with storms, you may want to put it under cover where it won’t be super-saturated again. Don’t fertilize until it shows signs of new growth. Then say kind things to him and wish him luck. He will either make it or not at this point.
Right now I have the container under the cover of the porch roof so it won’t get moisture unless it comes from me, and gets about a half day of sun. I’ll keep you posted on how he’s doing. In the meantime, the hot, humid, and rainy weather pattern has finally left us, and I hope all the stressed plants have a chance to recover.
PLANTING & CARING FOR HELLEBORES
Tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions, hybrid hellebores perform best when sited in partial shade in rich, moist, but well-draining soil. Hellebores are quite easy to grow, and since they are perennials, will continue to bloom for a number of years.
Hellebore planting tips:
- Many gardeners like to plant hellebores on a hillside or in raised flower beds to better enjoy their downward-facing blooms. See an excellent example of this planting strategy: A Winter Jewel Box.
- When transplanting hellebores directly from their nursery containers, be sure to shake off the potting mix and free up any bound roots.
- Be careful not to plant your hellebores too deeply as this can hinder flower production. Make sure the crown of the plant is just slightly buried beneath the soil.
- Plant with companions such as snowdrops, crocus, muscari, daffodils, phlox, trillium and bleeding heart.
- Hellebores contain toxins that are harmful to pets and humans, so keep them out of reach. See more Common Poisonous Plants for Dogs and Cats.
Hellebore care tips:
- The leathery foliage of hellebore flowers looks best when sheared in late winter just before new growth emerges.
- An annual application of manure or compost will help to boost the growth of your hellebores.
- Provide plenty of water during spring and fall when they are actively growing. You can ease up during the summer because heat causes hellebores to go dormant.
Hellebores-Every Gardener Should Have Some
Gardeners and Hellebores
Ok, drumroll here….I think I can say that Hellebores are my favorite perennial plant. A well-kept secret of garden enthusiasts, Hellebores should be more widely known to serious and not so serious gardeners alike this is a plant that is worth seeking out. What other plant resists deer, neglect, likes shade-even deep shade, is evergreen, arranges beautifully, and has stunning flowers? Did I mention that it blooms for 3 – 4 months of the year? That was not a typo- Hellebores bloom for at least 3 months, sometimes longer, starting in mid February for me in the mid-Atlantic region, and soldiering on until at least April or May. Increasingly, I have seen them for sale at Trader Joe’s and other unlikely places, so I think finally people are waking up to the value of this flower. Poisonous too and deer turn up their nose at these beautiful plants.
So, why isn’t this plant in more gardens? Several reasons…First they are pricey. Retail prices can range from $15 to $30 a piece. Second, when most people are browsing the garden centers in May, the plants have mostly finished their blooming show and people move on to fresher blooming plants. Third, Hellebore flower colors are usually subtle greens, pinks, and whites, and many gardeners want something brighter and flashier. But hybridizers are working on that with increasingly colorful flowers being released every year.
Double hellebore, not sure of the variety
Nearly black Hellebore- Black Diamond ‘Ivory Prince’ is a beautiful variety with outward facing creamy flowers
For bee and nature lovers, this plant is extra important because it is an early nectar source for pollinators. There isn’t much blooming when they are in their glory in the late winter and I am sure to see the flowers filled with bees on a warmer day.
One of my honeybees visiting a hellebore
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait
Float your blooms in a bowl and they last for a couple of weeks
Another drawback other than their high price, and I warn my clients about this when I include them in a garden design they take a while to establish. To get a nice size blooming clump, it will take about 5 years if you start with a quart size plant. So, in this day and age of instant gratification, this can be a deal stopper for some people.
Very few perennial plants can tolerate the winter snow and wind that nature throws at them in January and February, but Hellebores emerge in late February with a welcome spring show. Some of the evergreen foliage might get burned on the edges and get tattered but you can quickly nip off those leaves for fresh to emerge.
‘Wedding Party’ has beautiful double flowers
The most popular varieties are the Oriental hybrid Hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus ) which grow in the USDA zones 6-9.
Yellow is a new color for Hellebores This is a beauty!
The common name for Hellebores is Lenten Rose, because they bloom around the season of Lent. Hybridizers have latched onto Hellebores and specialized in creating a rainbow of colors, such as yellow, burgundy, spotted, black, pinks, and picotees. And the names!….Honeyhill Joy, Ivory Prince, Amber Gem, Berry Swirl, Cotton Candy, Black Diamond, Golden Lotus, Onyx Odyssey, Rose Quartz, Peppermint Ice, are just the tip of the iceberg. They sound like paint colors on a paint swatch.
A sea of hellebores at a local nursery
The normally downward facing flowers have been bred to tilt outward instead of tilted to the ground so that you can easily see the flower show. Hybridizers have also turned their attention to the foliage, breeding for variegation, burgundy flushed stems, and silvery sheens.
All these efforts must have paid off as they are flooding the nurseries and the prices are top dollar. I have seen Hellebores for more than $50 a piece. They are getting as expensive as some hybridized peonies!
This hellebore has variegated foliage
The culture of Hellebores is so easy that if you just plant them in a shady or partly shady spot, you’re done! I have some in sunny locations here in Maryland, but in more southern states, like Florida, plant them in full shade. In particular, Lenten Rose is a valuable player for dry shade, the nemesis of many gardeners. I use them as a ground cover under large trees where deer are prone to browse. For more shady ground cover choices, go to Made for the Shade.
Hellebores will set seed all around the plant and when the seedlings appear, dig them up and scatter them around. You will have large clumps in no time that last for years and years.
Seedlings surround the mother plant
As I noted earlier, if you nip the older outer leaves in late winter, so the new stems and leaves can come up in the center. That is it for maintenance!
A large clump of Hellebores in late February that needs to be trimmed Same clump transformed and displaying flowers better once trimmed
My advice for buying these beauties is to buy them in bloom so you know what you are getting as the colors can vary widely. Take a nursery shopping trip in late February and early March to get the best pick. For people who live near me in Central Maryland, go to Happy Hollow Nursery off of Padonia Rd in Cockeysville, at 410-252-4026. Tell them TheGardenDiaries sent you!
Hellebores covering a bank
So, gardeners of the world-Are you listening? Tell all your friends and neighbors about this plant. It should not be a secret any longer.
Make Your Hellebores Look Even Better
All it takes is some yearly grooming.
With showy winter flowers in colors of red, pink, purple, white, yellow, and everything in-between, hellebores are among our most popular perennials for shade. They’re easy to grow and undemanding, but there’s one quick thing you can do to make them look even better. Every winter, just before the flowers appear, give them a haircut. Remove all leaves that began growing the previous winter and spring. Compost healthy-looking leaves and throw out spotted, brown, or yellow leaves with the trash.
Why do this when their glossy, evergreen leaves are such an asset? Three reasons.
First, the longer a leaf remains, the more likely it is to contract a disease, such as leaf spot. Splashing water can spread the disease from leaf to leaf and soon you have a hospital ward instead of a garden. Removing old leaves keeps disease under control.
Second, the longer the leaves remain, the more that weather takes a toll on their appearance. Eventually, they get ragged and torn and turn yellow. Removing them makes way for fresh, young foliage.
Finally, removing old foliage reveals the rising flower stalks that aren’t attached to the leaves. The blooms have much more impact without those ugly, old leaves.
Don’t worry – cutting off the leaves won’t reduce the vigor of the plants. They’ll quickly sprout new leaves. And don’t flip out if you accidentally cut off a flower stalk. Hellebores make outstanding, long-lasting cut flowers. Just place the stalk in a vase of water.