Heavenly and Hardy Hellebores – with David Walther of Spring Fever Nursery

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“I like to think they are shy,” David Walther, co-owner with his wife Cathy, of Spring Fever Nursery in Yankee Hill tells me, speaking of his beloved hellebores. “Many varieties of hellebores have flowers that face downward because as winter bloomers they are trying to protect their pollen from wind and rain and snow until pollination takes place. But the difference between the back of a hellebore’s so-called bloom, and its wide – often surprisingly beautiful – face can be a night and day difference.” Photo: A bowl of floating hellebore blooms plucked from the array at Spring Fever Nursery – included are Helleborus orientalis, Helleborus niger and many Hellborus x hyrbidus in single, semi-double and fully double forms.

In David’s garden, much of which is beneath tall oaks and conifers, many of the hellebores may hang their faces, but they are not shy. In fact they are growing and blooming with joyful abandon in nooks and crannies, in part sun and in full shade, standing tall and apart from other plants and nestled right up against other woodland plants such as ferns. David has been collecting hellebore’s for more than a few years – “5? 7?” he can’t exactly remember and many of the plants in his garden are now his own crosses, grown from the self-seeding and hybridizing that hellebores are notorious for – “Shy in stance sometimes, but promiscuous in behavior,” David tells me. Many of David’s original plants came from Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne hellebore experts in Eugene, Oregon who founded and own Northwest Garden Nursery. Photo: Helleborus orientalis nestled up against a fern.

The hellebore genus is a member of the Ranunculaceae family of plants, and blooms are generally a rounded cup-shape. The colorful five outer elements of the flower heads are not actually petals, but sepals and as such they persist for a long time. These sepals are often what create the drama in a hellebore, with backsides streaked and veined, or picotee edged a darker color than the rest of the sepal, and with speckled, freckled and veined front sides. The sepals can be double, ruffled and range in color from pure white, warm yellow, pink, burgundy and all the way to an almost inky black. The smaller inner circle of so-called nectaries (petals capable of holding nectar) can range from almost invisible single, to semi-double, to double and colored in sharp contrast to the sepals. The combinations of colors and patterns are seemingly endless and more hybrids come on the market each year. Easily crossed with one another, hellebores are one of those plants in a nursery that you should only buy IN BLOOM, otherwise you can not be sure what the blooms will look like. Specialty catalogue growers offer cloned plants whose bloom color and form should be guaranteed. Photo: A double form of Helleborus hybridus.

Hellebores are evergreens native to much of Europe and Asia. They will live happily in dry shade, but often prefer moist meadow conditions. Currently, botanists note a handful of true species, several named hybrids and many, many unnamed hybrids generally grouped by flower form and/or color. Many of the unnamed hybrids and cultivars are crosses between Helleborus orientalis, often called the Lenten Rose and which blooms in late winter, or Helleborus niger, also known as the Christmas Rose. Hellebores are generally very hardy, thriving from Sunset zone 1 – 9 and up. Helleborus foetidus is native to the british isles and has a sort of skunky smell, but a vigorous upright habit and clear celadon green flowers. Helleborus corsicus has dramatic toothed foliage and larger celadon green flowers. Photo: Left: a specked-faced semi-double form with nectaries tucked up against the bright yellow stamens. Right: a deep burgundy single.

All forms of hellebores are poisonous if ingested in large enough amounts. According to my two-volume “A Modern Herbal,” by Mrs. M Grieve, republished by Dover Books in 1971 from the 1931 Harcourt, Brace & Company original edition, the “generic name of this plant is derived from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food).” While walking his garden, David mentioned to me how rich the folklore about hellebores was. According to several sources, including www.stateuniversity.com, www.gardenofeaden.com and my above mentioned herbal, the ‘Christmas rose’ is so named in common usage due to an old legend that it sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem, further as a result of its toxic attributes, crushed hellebore leaves were used by the Greeks to poison the water supply of their enemies in an historic battle, and it was perhaps hellebore that was used to poison Alexander the Great. Photo: Helleborus orientalis back and front – David loves the sharply veined faces and the picotee edges.

In the gardens at Spring Fever, David feeds his hellebores a good dose of composted steer manure every few years in early winter before blooming and he sees a lot of difference in the number and size of the blooms as a result. His hellebores get regular water through the summer “though they are very tolerant of neglect and missed waterings.” The deep green leathery leaves are a good solid foliage most of the year and the blooms hold for a very long time due to the fact that once the flowers have been pollinated and fruit/seed is set, everything except the sepals and the tiny seed pod inside falls away (see photo below). He cuts back dead leaves and flower stems as they look ratty throughout the season, and cuts all foliage off in early January “to really accentuate flowers.”Photo: A dramatic double.

David is also proud – and thrilled – to point out that his many, many hellebores are not bothered by deer or gophers – so what’s not to love? Photo: David holding up an already pollinated bloom with just the sepals and the seed pod remaining – in the other hand flowers on the same plant that have not yet been pollinated.

David likes to display his hellebores floated in a bowl with their faces shining upward. They can be used as cut flowers in arrangements – especially the species whose blooms point more outward than downward, but their stems need to be seared to hold the moisture in as long as possible. Photo: A selection of the floating hellebore arrangement.

Want to see more? Spring Fever Nursery will be holding their annual hellebore Open Nursery Days the last two weekends in March and the first two weekends in April – Sundays and Mondays from 9 am to 5 pm. Entry to the gardens and nursery is free and hellebores will be available for sale. David will also be speaking to the Paradise Garden Club at their regular member meeting on Monday March 8th at 1:00 pm at the Terry Ashe Recreation Center 6626 Skyway Paradise. He will also be at the Lake Oroville Garden Club on Thursday March 11th at 10 am at the Trinity Presbyterian Church, 2350 Foothill Blvd in Oroville. Photo: A stunning white semi-double white large creamy sepal and dark burgundy nectaries lining the interior.

If you or your gardening organization has a class or plant/gardening related event you’d like posted to the on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events at jewellgarden.com, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com Photo: A strongly yellow form, which is quite rare, selected for and grown on by Marietta O’Byrne at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene.

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Lynda Bos says:

    They're beautiful! This article is a treat. Will they withstand the 115 degree heat in Redding, even in the shade?

  2. Avatar Karen C says:

    I have two in my yard, under the oaks. They are tough plants and do well. Mine came from the Eureka area, and have a greenish white flower. I've never seen them at a nursery here, but then I am not looking for them. I'd love to have some of the beautiful colors.

  3. Avatar Judy salter says:

    Curious too about our summer heat. Great article

  4. Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

    Yes! They are heat hardy too! I should have mentioned that more specifically – Yankee Hill, where David gardens, receives approximately the same heat as Chico, where I garden and where my 6 or 7 Hellebores are in partial shade in summer but right next to the reflected heat of a concrete drive. Hellebores are blooming right now at the McConnell Arboretum and Gardens and Julie Nelson, a friend who gardens there in Redding, sent me an e-mail that her H. foetidus is blooming its heart out right now. They do like partial shade in summer, but their root systems must be extensive as their foliage can literally lay flat from the summer heat if you've forgotten to water or not noticed them for a bit, and then plump right back up when water returns. Hope that helps!

  5. Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

    And if you want the colored blooms – go looking now and for the next month or so when the plants in the nursery should be blooming. I would be surprised if most of our independent nurseries did not have a few H. Orientalis or Hybridus in stock now and/or soon.