By Renate Tilson

Thank heavens for hellebores, a splendid addition to the Northwest winter garden. When our Oregon sky is persistently cold and gray, and most of the landscape is drab, soggy, and beat down by water, it appears that nothing, I mean nothing, is blooming.

This is about the time I first stumbled upon a wonderful new plant, the hellebore, that takes center stage and blooms in the deep winter. It can be counted on to provide interest and flowers before virtually anything else in the garden. If there were a seasonal plant popularity contest, hellebores would clearly win the winter section. Who can resist a plant that starts blooming in January?

Experts call it “hell-a-bore,” but it is anything but boring. Folks are often suspicious of plants that bloom in winter, thinking they have been forced, somehow. Not hellebores. Some hellebore varieties, called Lenten Rose, will happily bloom from January into March. They seem to flower no matter how cold it gets. In fact, they prefer cold weather.

Arriving here from British gardens, they do love our Northwest winter climate. Hellebores bloom on stems about 7-10 inches in height. Their clumping habit amplifies the beauty of individual blooms. Nodding flowers of five petals—curled, toothed, or double—come in many colors, bold or subtle: white, cream, light green, pink, apricot, red, or deep purple, almost black. Dark centers of the blooms easily catch the eye of onlookers. To be sure to get the color you want, buy your specimen in bloom.

At a time of year when there’s not much to be gathered outside for the indoor flower vase, cut some hellebores or float them in a bowl. They will last up to two weeks.

It is difficult for new gardeners to understand how undemanding and easy they are to grow. Most hellebores are easy to plant and require even less care thereafter. Simply dig a hole about a foot deep, add mulch, some slow release fertilizer, and about 1/4 cup of lime. Top-dress with some leaf mulch. Their foliage is poisonous to deer and is almost indestructible by weather. Moles ignore their roots. They have few problems with disease and are extremely drought tolerant. “There just aren’t many plants with those kinds of attributes,” says Marietta O’Byrne of Eugene’s Northwest Garden Nursery. They thrive in moist organic soil and in the same conditions that ferns and rhododendrons prefer. They are happy in the shade of Douglas firs and are evergreen. Given the right care, they can live for decades.

Nice late-winter companion plants are primroses, snowdrops, narcissus, and daffodils.

Hellebores are a wonderful addition to any shady spot in the garden. To top it all off, they provide ample nectar for hungry bees awakening in the cold of winter.

One of the Northwest’s finest collection of hellebores can be found right here in Eugene at the Northwest Garden Nursery. Visit their Hellebore Open Garden during the last two weeks of February.

Think about it: What other blooming plants can a gardener gather in bouquets in mid-winter? There are just not many choices. Watch out—you, too, may become a hellebore addict!