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Helleborus: Spell Breaker by Donatella de Rosa

Although cultivated since antiquity, the Helleborus has recently emerged from relative obscurity to become a star in the modern perennial garden. Native to southern and central Europe, hellebores were found primarily in mountainous regions, but this versatile plant has acclimated to a wide range of habitats. Here in the northeastern U.S. the very notion of a lovely flower with evergreen leaves blooming in the dregs of winter—as we tire of the seemingly endless challenge of snow, wind and ice—borders on the magical.

Throughout the ages, the helleborus has been ascribed magical powers. H. Niger [niger refers to the black roots] was used to cure insanity, to guard against witches and evil spirits and was long considered the perfect ingredient for breaking spells and enchantments. In Greek mythology, Melampus used the hellebore to cure the madness of King Proteus’ daughters who had, along with other women, lost their hair and ran wildly through the streets thinking themselves to be cows. The Romans spread H. Niger throughout their empire and hellebores could often be found in English and French gardens planted near the door to guard against evil. Folklore also tells us that if a vase of hellebore were brought into a room, an unpleasant atmosphere would be driven out and replaced with one of tranquility.

The Helleborus was eventually absorbed into Christian folklore. The charming legend of Madelon tells the story of a young girl traveling with the Shepherds to see the Christ child. Having no gift for the child, Madelon began to weep. Taking pity on her, an angel led her from the stable and as she touched the barren winter ground a hellebore sprang up in full bloom, hence its common name, the “Christmas Rose.” (An early spring blooming variety is also known as the “Lenten Rose.”)

Famous for its curative powers (it was often used as a purgative) from antiquity throughout the Middle Ages, the hellebore’s roots are, however, poisonous, and can be fatal if consumed in excess; Alexander the Great is rumored to have met his end after taking an unusually high dose. While etymologists dispute this translation, the word hellebore is said to come from the Greek hellein, meaning “to kill,” and bora, meaning “food.”

cultural needs
Most hellebores are happiest in shade to semi-shade. With plenty of organic matter in the soil, good drainage, and protection from winter’s harsh winds, they will reward you with their lovely nodding blooms.

In my garden I have several species of hellebore. Stinking hellebore, [H. foetidus, has a pleasant musty odor] starts blooming in early to mid March and the blooms last well into June. The Christmas Rose, (H. niger) with its white blooms that eventually age to pink, starts blooming in late February. H. orientalis, and its many hybrids, (H. x hybridus) is fast becoming a favorite. They bloom in early spring and often last into the middle of July. Most hellebores have dark evergreen leaves and are drought and deer resistant. They will thrive in a shady corner and reliably charm garden visitors with a lovely array of white, or speckled, pale green, rosy pink to deep red cup-like blossoms.

Members of the genus Helleborus include approximately twenty species of herbaceous flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae. There are two types of species of Helleborus; caulescent species [with stems] include Helleborus arutifolius, Helleborus foetidus, and Helleborus vesicarius. Acaulescent species [without stems] include—among others—Helleborus atrorubens, Helleborus croaticus, Helleborus cyclophyllus, Helleborus niger, and Helleborus orientalis.

Hellebores can be grown by seed or by division. Seed propagation requires six to eighteen months or more, and a period of cold temperatures for germination. Dividing hellebores is the simplest method of propagation; however you must determine whether your clump is caulescent or acaulescent. Only the caulescent species can be divided successfully.

Hellebores can develop “Black Spot” and more seriously, “Black Death” which is fatal although I’ve never had either in my garden. Starting out with healthy plants and good ventilation will help prevent both.

companion plants
Hellebores are lovely when combined with early spring bulbs. Their shiny evergreen leaves help Spring’s more pastel shades stand out. I mix mine in a bed with epimedium, several varieties of ferns, euphorbia, trillium and hosta.


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