Snowbreakers

Early-blooming plants that signal the end of winter.

There’s only one thing better than being a doctor at a party and that’s being a garden writer. Everyone has a question about his or her hydrangeas, lawns, grubs, roses, tomatoes, hedges and the list goes on. I don’t have all the answers, but eventually the conversation turns to discovering the right plant for the right place. That’s when a passion is ignited in my voice as I’m able to share information about plants that are indestructible, beautiful and relatively unknown by most people.

You see, falling in love with a plant and becoming its benefactor mean telling every gardener you see about its splendid blooms and carefree growing habit.  One of my favorite wintertime conversation pieces is about the first flowers that bravely bloom after winter’s long sleep. Hellebores are one of those plants. There are many different varieties, but the big ones are the Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) and the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger).

In our area, the Christmas Rose begins to send buds up at the most unexpected time—as soon as the cold weather hits in November. During a mild winter, the plant blooms through Christmas and well into January. The 3-inch white flowers fade to a greenish purple as they age. It’s amazing to see honeybees during a warmer winter day covering the stamens searching for pollen. Where they come from and where they go are mysteries to me, but kneeling down and watching them work in the low winter sun is a refreshing sight. During tough winters, the flowers, crushed by snow, will lay dormant for months and during a warm spell, even in late winter, will be resurrected.

But it’s the Lenten Rose that offers a reliable and wonderful spring treat when it flowers alongside early bloomers like crocus. Breeders have come up with thousands of different Lenten Rose flower shapes and colors from the creamiest white and softest pink to the deepest purple. They are really indescribable and add much-needed color to the spring garden. A flower like hellebore can be the star of the garden in early spring because it’s one of the only things blooming. Therefore, it is doted on, examined and enjoyed at close range. The plant tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions, grows to about 18 inches and has year-round deep-green foliage.

Barry Glick of Sunshine Farms and Gardens in Renick, W. Va., is the self-proclaimed king of hellebores. He cultivates six acres of the plants and has been working to improve them for the past 34 years. He supplies some of the biggest garden mail-order companies with the plant. “People are going wild for the doubles,” he says. They look as if they were created by an artist out of tissue paper, but in reality they are hardy and last for weeks in bloom. His Sunshine Selections is the main line for the farm, and one look at his Web site will convince you that this is a plant you must grow.

But hellebores are special not just for their beauty, but because they are tough. I was first introduced to them by a gardening friend 15 years ago. She was getting a couple of other gardeners together to go dig up what she thought was daphne. Those early days of learning to garden were filled with lots of ignorance and a fair amount of bliss. If anyone had anything to give away, we were there. We dug up the plants stupidly in the middle of the day and left them bareroot in a plastic bucket stored in a van. The interior temperature in the vehicle simulated the surface of the sun. By the time I got the plant home, it was a wilted wreck. I gave it a home right near my front door under an overgrown shrub.

Two seasons later I was shocked to see the flowers emerging. By that time I was able to recognize that this was a hellebore, not a daphne, for these plants bear absolutely no resemblance to each other. I called my gardening friend with the good news. Waiting on the other end of the phone I heard her come running back in the house. “Yes, yes, it’s blooming,” she said, catching her breath. “Isn’t it wonderful?” At that point I broke the news: The plants were not daphnes. “ I didn’t think so,” she said, sheepishly. I moved that plant one more time, to my present garden, where it continues to pump out the blooms each season, adding a few every year. Ironically, conventional wisdom for hellebores says not to move them once established. Like any other gardener faced with losing a plant or moving it, I choose the latter.

Glick has never seen the plants eaten by deer, although some gardeners in our area have noticed some deer damage. He laughed when I asked him why he grows hellebores. “Why not? They’re not bothered by insects or disease, and grow in the densest shade or even light sun. They bloom in February, March, April and May when nothing else is blooming. They make a huge clump of evergreen foliage, and they will live over 100 years. They are almost a perfect plant.”
He didn’t have to convince me; that’s the same thing I tell people at parties.

Doug Oster is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s “Backyard Gardener” and co-host of the popular radio show “The Organic Gardeners,” heard every Sunday morning on KDKA 1020AM. He’s also co-author of two gardening books about organic gardening. Visit theorganicgardeners.com to learn more.

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