Lenten roses in bloom mean spring is nearly here

At long last, the Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) are blooming. It seemed they would stay in bud forever.

helleborus orientalis

helleborus orientalis

helleborus orientalis

It’s hard not to adore these flowers. They bloom for me from February through late May, have evergreen foliage, and are as tough as my old biology teacher. They grow everywhere except in the baking sun and are quite happy in the dry clay at the feet of my post oaks and thirsty Japanese maples. They represent a much better ground cover choice than English ivy, which is invasive here. I give my hellebores a quick drink when I plant them and then leave them to it, revisiting them only to trim back dead foliage once a year and occasionally move their seedlings about.

They’re pricey at the garden center, so see if you can’t find a fellow gardener to share a flowering clump. Hellebores flower three years after starting from seed, but the ground cover effects begin immediately.

Helleborus experimentalis

I recently read Gayla Trail’s post about her fear of growing hellebores. I was surprised to learn that many people seem to feel trepidation about growing these plants. They are pricey, certainly, but for me they have been so easy as to be almost ridiculous. I have given mine absolutely no coddling and while my soil isn’t the worst in the world, I think, it isn’t going to win any “Best Tilth” awards, either.

I am conducting a little experiment, then, to see just how tough a hellebore can be. My only expectation is that at least one of these clumps should thrive in spite of me.

I dug up a few clumps of seedlings with my beloved garden knife. Note the exemplary growing conditions.

Experiment methodology:

  1. Dig a hole the same size as the transplant (no larger).
  2. Plop it into the hole (do not amend soil).
  3. Mash with foot.
  4. Do not water.
  5. Do not feed.
  6. Do not tend.
  7. Return periodically to assess progress or demise.

playhouse site

Test Plot A: The kids’ playhouse.  Just above the concrete block on the left of the photo is a window from which the children pretend to sell ice cream. It gets plenty of foot traffic. This is also the landing site for the bucket on a pulley, which hoists things to the fort’s lookout level. The soil here has never been amended, unless you count the occasional covering with a wood chip mulch to cut down on the mud. This site is in deep shade and grass can’t grow here. Assuming similar conditions to neighboring undeveloped garden spaces, the pH here is 4.8.

water meter, west facing

Test Plot B: West-facing gravel scree atop the water meter. This site receives neither foot traffic nor love. The most human attention it gets is a scowl from me as I leave the driveway, thinking “I have got to do something about that space.” May occasionally receive attention from dogs being walked. There are lots of neighborhood dogs.

barren south facing site

Test Plot C: South-facing, against the concrete foundation. The soil here is completely untended, rock-solid clay. I expect it to receive some foot traffic as it is in the access path for any people and equipment who will be working on the addition to our house this summer.

living above ground

Test plot D: No-man’s land behind the shed. Test Subject D, slightly more mature than its counterparts, will live above ground, simply in the clod in which it was dug up. This is in a shady site behind my shed, where large pots and leftover bricks are stored.

These test plantings were established and photos taken on March 28, 2013. We’ll check in periodically and see how they fare.

Last-minute chores

Wednesday’s weather was gorgeous. After sitting and sketching for my prospective rain garden, I did a few other chores I’ve been meaning to attend to:

variegated solomon's seal

I dug up and moved the variegated Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’. This is one terrific plant; absolutely resilient in my acid clay soil and deep shade. It had been located close to the azaleas I’m moving, but since that zone of the garden is being totally revised, I chose to move the Solomon’s seal to the under-construction white garden. Imagine the thrill I felt when I discovered the plant I bought in a 4-inch pot two years ago was now about 24 inches wide. It divided rather neatly into about eight clumps, which I planted near the Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii)

Giddy from this accomplishment, I turned to the Acanthus mollis, sometimes known (but by whom, I am unsure) as bear’s breeches. This is a plant that I like in theory. I cannot say for certain whether I like it in practice, because for me it has never lived up to its billing. It has always been sited in what I consider to be part shade, getting afternoon sun (I’m sure it would prefer morning sun, like all other plants on the planet, but we cannot always have what we want). Instead of the 3′ clumps of spectacular evergreen foliage it is supposed to yield, I have 8″ clusters of spectacular leaves, if small, few in number, and in fact deciduous. It has never flowered.

I made a last-ditch attempt to make it happy, transplanting it (in three pieces) to the edge between the white garden and the pink-purple-yellow garden, where it may receive, if not morning sun, then somewhat-earlier-in-the-day sun. I will consider it successful if it produces a larger clump of promising foliage. I will forgive its reticence to flower.

I have heard that it is best to make the commitment to Acanthus at the nursery, because once you bring it home, you will never fully be rid of it. Not that it grows rampantly (clearly!), but the roots are rather brittle and will break easily. If a partial root remains behind, the plant will regenerate from it. I don’t normally show this much faith in a plant, but the leaves are truly irresistible.