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Plant Profiles: Helleborus


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Hell'a bore us


Winter-blooming, evergreen perennial

From shade to sun, depending on species; good drainage; even moisture

Stingy soil

Helleborus foliage is an astonishing asset; there are lots more where these come from

Evergreen Perennial

"Perhaps this is the place to issue a warning," writes Elizabeth Strangman in The Gardener's Guide to Growing Hellebores. "Hellebores are addictive, and once intrigued and ensnared by their charms it is hard to break the spell."

I'll say. Coast to coast, American gardeners are gonzo for hellebores, and don't the nursery folk know it. The plant's a regular pinup girl -- gracing the covers of who knows how many plant catalogs this year -- her open-wide, color-saturated sepals whispering sweet nothings as her provocative private parts draw you in. Even Strangman's book reads like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, page after page of glossy close-ups with each flower at its absolute peak. Midnight purples and high-noon yellows bear witness to the sorcery of hybridization: these beauties did not emerge whole from their shells.

Most are crosses of the lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis, plants now available in a mind-numbing range of flower color. Some are named forms, but others are simply grouped by color, such as blue-blacks, smoky purples, or pinks. I wish I could make it easy on you and select one or two cultivars, but the breeding and selection frenzy is moving too fast to keep tabs on. Your best bet is to simply buy the hybrids in flower, and let your rising pulse rate be your guide.

If I might, however, divert your attention from all this transient beauty, there are two other forms of hellebore that make superb, year-round garden plants.

We don't hear much about plants native to England, but here's one: Helleborus foetidus, the "stinking hellebore," named for the olfactory sensation that results from crushing its leaves. The smell's really not that bad, just slightly skunky (Strangman describes the flower's scent as "rather catty"). The blossoms are pale green and really jump out of the shade, further enhanced by their startling contrast against the hellebore's rich, olive green leaves. For my money, the foliage is worth the price of admission, each leaf divided into long elegant leaflets in that classic, palmately compound shape of cannabis leaves.

H. foetidus is adaptable to sun or shade, though happiest in humusy soil. It's not particularly long-lived, but generally leaves behind a brood of easily raised seedlings. 'Wester Flisk' is a gorgeous selection with red-tinted stems and leaf petioles and, sometimes, a red blush to its flowers.

No one believes me when I say Helleborus xsternii is happy in full sun, but given ample moisture, it's all the more gorgeous after taking in the rays. In its best form, this cross has marbled foliage that emerges almost steely blue, with pink stems and pink-flushed flowers (which are admittedly ho-hum).

The selection 'Blackthorn Strain,' made at Blackthorn Nursery in England, is thought to have the best leaf color, with the bonus of crimson stems. For that reason, if you can find it, you might grab the named form. However, I grow both H. x sternii and 'Blackthorn Strain' (I paid dearly for the latter), and I can't tell the two exquisite plants apart.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.