How did gardeners in Southern California ever get along without hellebores? These plant treasures only began showing up in Southern California nurseries and gardens sometime in the early 1990s. I saw my first plant, a dark red beauty, early one spring some ten years ago when I was visiting Filioli, the estate on the San Francisco Peninsula. Recognizing it from photographs in nursery catalogs, I longed to grow that beautiful perennial. I had not seen hellebores for sale in area nurseries nor planted in local gardens, so I assumed they would not thrive in our warmer climate.
Eventually, I spotted clumps of Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius) in Jack Thompson’s garden in nearby Sierra Madre. Jack was a generous and adventurous gardener who had ordered his plant from a catalog. Encouraged by my enthusiasm, he dug a sizable piece of it for me to take home. The fact that he had been successful gave me hope that I might succeed with it in my own garden.
I planted that division under a Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius). In spite of competition from the tree’s roots, the hellebore thrived and I was able to divide it three years later. Native to the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, this Mediterranean native gets by on moderate amounts of water and can tolerate more sun than other species. Still growing in its original spot, my clump gets morning sun and flourishes with twice-weekly summer irrigation.
Probably the best species for Southern California, Corsican hellebore may spread seedling plants all about if it is happy in its setting. Since nursery-grown hellebores are relatively expensive, it’s a pleasure to harvest dozens of baby plants to spread around the garden or share with friends, even though the seedlings may not bloom for a couple of years. Amanda Goodan, a keen Pasadena gardener who tends one of the best water-conserving gardens in town, last year gave me two dozen seedlings that had sprouted in the grass beneath an elevated planting in her back garden. One of them sprinted to adulthood quickly and is already preparing to flower in the shade of a large Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea). If the rest of these small plants survive, I’ll finally have enough of this tough, rather slow-growing perennial to plant in several spots throughout my garden.
Unfortunately, I have been unsuccessful with the variegated form of Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius ‘Janet Starnes’), which has an attractive white marbling on the leaves and seems to prefer a shadier setting with filtered sunlight. Yet Anne Williams, a gardener who lives five miles away in Glendale, has a ten-year-old clump that is now almost five feet across. Her plant gets dappled sunlight from the east until 2 pm. She spreads organic fertilizer around all of her hellebores in spring and fall.
A Few Other Hellebores
After acquiring that first hellebore, I began to notice other species showing up in local gardens. Hortus, a Pasadena nursery that prospered during the 1990s by marketing interesting and unusual plants, began introducing Pasadena gardeners to hellebore species and hybrids that would tolerate our heat. One species that owner Gary Jones particularly recommended was Helleborus lividus, which originates on Majorca and resembles the Corsican hellebore. The thrice-divided leaves on H. lividus have a pale white netting of veins and purplish undersides. Pale green flowers have a tinge of pinkish purple and rise in clusters of up to ten out-facing blooms.
The species with the worst name is Helleborus foetidus, or stinking hellebore. This one is quite distinct from the others, with a leaf divided into seven to ten leathery segments. When the leaves are crushed, they are said to give off a foul odor, but I have been unable to detect a whiff of anything offensive. Perhaps insects are attracted to this undetectable odor; my stinking hellebore hosted an early crop of aphids while neighboring hellebores were insect free. This is a dependable perennial in Southern California shade gardens, thriving with less water than most species.
Helleborus orientalis, commonly called Lenten rose because it blooms during Lent, originates in the dry climates of Greece and Turkey. It sports leathery, dark green leaves with sharply toothed edges, produced in a mounding clump about a foot tall. Once planted, the thick tough roots prefer to be left undisturbed. The large nodding flowers come in many colors from a creamy white to a dusky plum. This species also seems to tolerate the higher temperatures of Southern California. In my experience, H. orientalis does not grow quite as vigorously as the others; still, it has dark green leaves that contrast nicely with a variegated plectranthus nearby.
Hellebores hybridize easily, and most of the plants sold in nurseries as Helleborus orientalis are actually hybrids between that species and several others; they are now referred to as garden hybrids (Helleborus x hybridus). These hybrids bear flowers ranging from dark purple to peach pink as well as a pale green, soft yellow, and pure white. Like most other hellebores, they grow best in light shade. The Perennial Plant Association chose H. x hybridus as the 2005 Perennial Plant of the Year.
Most hellebores prefer soil that is slightly alkaline, a condition that is no problem at all for gardeners in southern California. It’s best to amend the planting site with organic matter. I’ve found one of the best reasons to grow hellebores is the handsome look of the plant, even when it is not in bloom. Hellebores look good in formal and informal garden beds, and provide a dramatic contrast to plants with lighter green or more delicate foliage.
I’ve now graduated to the next level of hellebore “plant lust.” I want to grow more of the selections with beautiful dark purple or spotted flowers. I was delighted to find one of these hybrid plants at a recent Huntington Botanical Garden plant sale; it had the same deep red color of the flowers that I had first seen at Filoli. I may order one of the double flowering forms that have begun to show up in nursery catalogs.
After several years of experimenting with hellebores in Pasadena, my recommendation is to plant them, if possible, in a raised bed. My only complaint about this plant is that, in many species, the flowers hang down, making them hard to enjoy or photograph. I recently carved out a special bed on the slope above a retaining wall of broken concrete, where I planted four species of hellebores. The first flowers are appearing this winter; they give me tremendous pleasure flowering almost at eye level.