Just when you thought that flowers were limited to spring, summer and fall, you stumble upon this lovely group of winter bloomers – hellebores. And I don’t mean “sometimes bloomers” or “early spring bloomers” – these guys bloom in the middle of winter, apparently unaffected by the cold.

Helleborus

The hellebore’s nodding flower gives the plant a distinct, almost shy appearance.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Helleborus hybridus green flower

Green flowers, like this Helleborus x hybridus, are considered a novelty among serious gardeners.

Photo Credit: John Buettner

Helleborus Ivory Prince

Some Christmas rose hybrids have been developed with handsome evergreen leaves and upward-facing, ivory-colored flowers, like this Helleborus (Ivory Prince)

Photo Credit: PlantHaven

This small group of woodland plants waits until all the leaves are off the trees to take advantage of wintertime’s short sunny days. Though hard freezes might do a little damage to new leaves or tender petals, for the most part these plants form the basis for the winter flower garden.

Hellebores belong to the genus Helleborus, which has 15 species, all belonging to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). In the wild, they’re found in the forests of Europe and western China. Since they bloom around Christmas and Lent, they have common names like Christmas rose and Lenten rose. They include some of the showiest green-colored flowers found anywhere, mostly in the bear claw or stinking hellebore group, Helleborus foetidus. Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a strikingly beautiful plant in bloom, with large, upturned, bright white flowers covering the entire surface of the plant. It can suffer from freezing temperatures, so you might want to protect them when the weather turns bitter. The Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) and hybrids of the Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus) have been the subjects of the most intensive breeding programs. New colors and flower shapes are developed each year by careful breeding, some of which takes place at nurseries in the Southeast. Besides the showy flowers appearing at a time when most other perennials are sleeping, hellebores are also highly valued for their evergreen and semi-evergreen leaves, allowing most species to perform double duty in the winter interest arena.

Though most people grow these plants in dappled shade with rich woodland soil, most hellebores in the H. foetidus group can handle full sun and even gravely free-draining soil as long as they get watered regularly.

The biggest complaint most gardeners have is that most Lenten rose flowers are nodding. In other words, the flowers look toward the ground and not up at the gardener. But newer cultivars have somewhat upward-pointing blooms. The flower colors range from white to deep purple, with all shades of pink in between.

Winter doldrums are easy to suppress when you can walk out to the garden and enjoy these lovely perennial blooms!