Helleborus orientalis

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Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose):

white hellebore flowering

Passed along to me by my neighbor, these lovelies bloom when little else does (late December or early January, on until April or early May), persevere under impossible conditions, require virtually nothing in the way of attention from me, and have bold evergreen foliage.

Consider this plant as an alternative to English ivy for a groundcover beneath large trees. (English ivy is invasive in many areas of the United States.) Hellebores grow in dry shade, even at the bases of oak and maple trunks. But they’ll perform equally well in slightly more hospitable areas. I grow mine under azaleas and rhododendrons, at the bases of trees, in the dry no-man’s land by my front steps, and in clusters in beds throughout the garden.

purple hellebore in bloom

They are expensive at the nursery or garden center, but if you have a neighbor who grows them, he or she probably has plenty to share. If you can get a mature clump or two in flower, in time to drop seed in your garden, you’ll be set. Hellebores reseed generously but are not at all difficult to manage. I have successfully transplanted tiny seedlings, like the ones below, by sticking my finger into the dirt, shoving the plant in, and walking away. I don’t even water them in, unless it’s exceptionally dry. hellebore seedlings

By the way, seedlings are generally much more congested than this. Simply pluck them up and put them where you want them. The plants do take about three years to flower from seed, but they leaf out quickly and provide a fresh evergreen groundcover as they grow. Wouldn’t you rather look at this than at mulch?

Helleborus orientalis

The only real maintenance I do is to cut off any tatty looking foliage when I see it. Not a burdensome task.

Pine Knot Farms is an excellent grower of these magnificent plants. Give them a try.

January check-up

We had a “wintry mix” on Thursday night and on Saturday I took a stroll around the garden to check on my seeds post-precip. There is so much going on in the garden, even though from the house it looks merely like a field of mud.

Hundreds of hellebore seedlings are coming up (and apparently, my plant choices make me terribly fashionable). My acanthus is looking fine, although I need to move it to a place where it can show off properly. (One problem with acanthus is that moving it is essentially dividing it; it’s hard to get all pieces of the roots and they do come back from root fragments). (c) 2013 AWH/MissingHenryMitchellMy yellow crocus along the front walk are flowering, and crocus foliage is up elsewhere in the garden. It goes without saying that the daffodils are poking through everywhere.

The blueberries are all showing buds, as are the stems on my shrub roses. This reminds me that I need to spray the roses to force them into dormancy, at least for a short time. The new bronze foliage emerging on a few of the roses will not do for January. The roses must have at least a short period of dormancy if they’re to do well in the summer. And the Rosa banksiae lutea, which I moved late last summer and was uncertain whether it would survive, seems to be doing well enough. This means I had better get cracking on building the new screen upon which I expect it to luxuriate.

And my seeds! Holy cow, so much germination. The pans of dill, beets, kale, feverfew, poppies (Danebrog, paeoniflora, and California), coreopsis, urtica (nettles), the red hollyhocks, geum, pink nicotiana, English lavender, rue, blue flax, bachelor’s button, chamomile, Thymus vulgaris, tithonia, alyssum, gaillardia, and Anemone hupehensis ‘Pamina’ have all sprouted. I am not worried about the dill, beets, and kale. Beyond that, who knows? Time to put in a query to my winter sowing compatriots to ask whether it’s time to panic.

Finally, rethinking my part-shade trellis seems more and more advisable. I may prefer an evergreen screen, but this is not something to be rushed into.

There are always ideas simmering away.

A few of my favorite things

Latest plants sown include:

My gardening philosophy, if I have one, is of the pasta-pot variety: Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. (This is not to be confused with seed bombing, which in my opinion is much more charming and probably more effective than what I do.) But in my bit of Arcadia, with its heavy, sticky clay, absurd summer heat and humidity, unpredictable water, and nutrient-sucking oak trees, I have been reduced to nine years of trial and error.

What’s worked for me? Here are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order:

white hellebore flowering

Flowers of Helleborus orientalis bloom in winter and early spring, and are deer-proof.

Helleborus orientalis: Passed along by my neighbor, these lovelies bloom when little else does (right now!), persevere under impossible conditions, require virtually nothing in theway of attention from me, and have bold evergreen foliage. They reseed generously but are not at all difficult to manage. I have successfully transplanted tiny seedlings by sticking my finger into the dirt, shoving the plant in, and walking away. I don’t even water them in. I will never willingly be without these plants again.

Gardenia jasminoides. I have a hedge of these that I planted in 2004 as quart-sized shrublets. Today, they’re well over 5′ tall and flower gorgeously in May and June, when they perfume the entire garden. Their foliage is glossy, their flowers voluptuous, and so far, I’ve not had any problems with insects or disease. Sometimes, if I’ve pruned intelligently, I can get a second flush of bloom in late August.

Iris tectorum 3

The bloom of Iris tectorum, Japanese roof iris.

Iris tectorum. Why did I wait so long to buy this plant? It’s 2 feet tall and bulletproof. It seems to be easy to propagate by seed. The clear, blue-purple flowers are charming and it blooms well in dry shade. Now that I think of it, it might make a nice combination with another favorite,

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum.‘ Delicate-looking, but absolutely tough as nails (perhaps you are detecting a pattern in my affections by now).

epimedium in winter

Epimedium in winter

Its heart-shaped leaves are evergreen here, though they turn a rusty bronze in winter. It blooms for me for several weeks in spring, with dainty yellow flowers dangling on a wiry stem. I have a clump about 3′ in diameter sitting smack on top of the roots of an oak, and it never complains or looks puny.

winter honeysuckle flower

The blossoms of winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima, are lemon-scented.

Lonicera fragrantissima. Fragrant winter honeysuckle grows as a large shrub or small tree. Mine copes happily with hot afternoon sun between (you guessed it) two large oaks, and smells heavenly when it blooms in late February or March (though with all the warm weather we’ve had lately, mine started blooming last week). I admit it looks a bit worn at the moment, but it’s suffered a bit of neglect this fall. In the spring after a light dressing of compost, it will fill out marvelously with abundant, rich green leaves. It would probably be even more glorious if I gave it a more sympathetic home, but it does what I ask of it, and earns my admiration in return.

Taken for granted

I owe a debt of thanks to my hellebores, and to my Lonicera fragrantissima, winter honeysuckle, which are both absolutely lovely in late February and early March. The hellebores were introduced to me about four years ago by my neighbor Martha, who had a surplus. I never had much interest in them before, but was glad to take anything free to fill up the expanse of barren earth I had cleared but couldn’t afford to plant up, so I dug up about four cat-litter tubs’ worth and planted them around the yard.
They bloom in shades of white and rose from February until May, and their palmate foliage stays evergreen for me. The foliage does tend to get a bit ratty looking in late fall and early winter (December around here), so it benefits from a gentle cleaning up. And it reseeds splendidly. The seedlings are easy to spot and pick out if they land in a spot you don’t want them, but I’ve tried to take advantage of their habit by planting them in desolate spots and letting them do their thing. They do take three years to bloom from seed, but as long as you have some going it’s easy to be patient with the young ones. And they are super-tough; they grow at the bases of large oak trees, competing fairly with the oaks’ thirsty roots, coping well with the high-90s temperatures that have become the norm in summertime. They’ve become one of my most beloved plants.
The Lonicera has small, white flowers that look like nothing special from up close, but from a distance they give the sense of impending spring. The scent is fresh and clean, slightly honey-scented, and it carries well. I have one beneath a large oak that has sprung up in a bizarre habit, probably aided by my unskillful pruning. But I love it dearly and planted an additional two last fall to keep it company and fill in an awkward spot between two oaks just off my back deck. I have searched for advice on pruning it and most things tend to say “leave it alone,” but what do you do when  you’ve already mangled it a bit and want to make it look pretty again? There’s another thing to investigate sometime.

It’s this time of year when I am going absolutely mad with the desire to see fresh green growth and clear colors again. I’ve had enough of the grays and browns of late winter. Then the hellebores and the Lonicera rise to the occasion splendidly. I must remember to be more grateful, and not think “Why couldn’t you have done this a month ago?”