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.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

#pixburgh: A Photographic Experience features images from the Sen. John Heinz History Center vault, which contains close to 1 million images. The show features a sampling of 400 images from the 1850s through today — including landmarks, fun, folly and floods.
In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Trees around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh are filled with nesting crows, and many students are wondering why.
Inside the Ultimate Man vs. Machine Poker Match in Pittsburgh

Inside the Ultimate Man vs. Machine Poker Match in Pittsburgh

Four of the world’s best poker players are playing 120,000 hands of Heads-Up No-Limit Texas Hold’em against Libratus, the poker-playing bot created by Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists.
See How Chess Made Le’Veon Bell a Better Running Back

See How Chess Made Le’Veon Bell a Better Running Back

Watch the video that reveals Bell’s talents that go beyond the football field.
RMU President Named to College Football Playoff Committee

RMU President Named to College Football Playoff Committee

Chris Howard will help decide which four teams will vie each year for college football’s national championship.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh Right Now

Many Pittsburgh bars have solid beer lists, well-mixed cocktails or a bartender who's handy with a shot and a story. We need more than that. What makes these bars the best?
View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

View Pittsburgh & Its People From The 1850s Through Today

#pixburgh: A Photographic Experience features images from the Sen. John Heinz History Center vault, which contains close to 1 million images. The show features a sampling of 400 images from the 1850s through today — including landmarks, fun, folly and floods.
In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

In Concert: What's Next for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

Melia Tourangeau, CEO and president of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, looks to lead the ensemble forward after a discordant strike.
Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville

Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
Daytripping: Have Musket, Will Travel

Daytripping: Have Musket, Will Travel

The rest is history at ye olde Colonial Williamsburg, the former capital of Virginia and now a restored revolutionary war-era village.
Talk of the Tahn: The Consequences of Trespassing

Talk of the Tahn: The Consequences of Trespassing

I snuck into a steel mill. Bethlehem, Pa. I’d been bragging about how big Pittsburgh’s industrial ruins were when a woman in a bar told me, “Bethlehem’s are bigger.” Size matters.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Oakland Crows: A Big Mess but a Harmless Murder

Trees around the campus of the University of Pittsburgh are filled with nesting crows, and many students are wondering why.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Restaurant Industry Fundraiser to Aid Injured Chef

Restaurant Industry Fundraiser to Aid Injured Chef

Zach Behm was chef de cuisine at Cure in Upper Lawrenceville at the time of a July car wreck.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


The Trendy New East Liberty Hangout ... Primanti's?

The Trendy New East Liberty Hangout ... Primanti's?

The latest outpost of the popular local chain is housed in the former Verde space in Garfield.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Tomlin Needs to Be Tomlin Against Brady, Belichick

Tomlin Needs to Be Tomlin Against Brady, Belichick

The Steelers are going to have to attack the game to survive it, to grab it by the throat and choke it to the desired conclusion.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Shyamalan's Split is Troubling For the Wrong Reasons

Shyamalan's Split is Troubling For the Wrong Reasons

Reviews of "Split," "20th Century Women" and "The Founder," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Real Pittsburgh Weddings: Why All of the Guests Got a Gift

Real Pittsburgh Weddings: Why All of the Guests Got a Gift

This couple wanted to make sure all of their guests felt as included as possible.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Making Moves: Restoration Hardware Coming to North Hills

Making Moves: Restoration Hardware Coming to North Hills

RH Pittsburgh, The Gallery at Ross Park Mall is opening up shop at Ross Park Mall. The new store will replace the luxury brand's prior location in Mt. Lebanon.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Gun Violence Target of Carlow's Social Justice Institutes

Gun Violence Target of Carlow's Social Justice Institutes

The University will conduct research and offer scholarships to victims.

Comments