Spring Ephemerals: Adapted for Success

There are hundreds of species of flowers that are native to the woodlands of northeastern North America, and nearly 90% of them bloom in the spring. Spring ephemerals are among the first of the woodland plants to emerge, allowing them to take full advantage of the available sunlight, moisture and nutrients of the forest floor. This gives them a head start in the race to fulfill the biological imperative of all flowering plants: the production of seeds for the continuation of the species.

However, blooming so early is not without risk. It requires unique evolutionary strategies and adaptations. Many spring ephemerals have developed complex relationships with other organisms in their eco-niche that encourage successful pollination and seed production. In addition, many have specific physical and structural characteristics that give them advantages in the potentially harsh conditions of early spring.

Small Size

Spring ephemerals are small plants. The forest floor thaws from top to bottom, so water and nutrients are available in the top level of the soil first, allowing smaller plants with their shallow root systems to become active before larger plants. This gives spring ephemerals a competitive edge in successful flower and seed production.

Growth Habit

Many spring ephemerals have physical characteristics that offer protection during the cold nights of early spring.  Bloodroot traps warm air with its thick leaves that envelop the flower bud and the flower stem, shielding them from frost. Other plants, such as Hepatica, have stems that are covered with dense hairs that resemble a fur coat. The hairs prevent ice condensation and act as insulators, thus protecting very early bloomers from damaging frosts.


Some woodland plants bloom before most pollinators are active. For example, skunk cabbage blooms so early that the only insect pollinators available are flies. The fetid odor of skunk cabbage is an adaptation designed to attract flies and ensure pollination.

Hepatica is another early bloomer, with blossoms that span the time of available pollinators. Hepatica relies on flies as well as early bees, beetles and moths for pollination.

Our native bumble bees are essential to the reproductive success of many spring ephemerals, such as Dutchman’s breeches.

Seed Dispersal

Many woodland perennials rely on wind, or birds, or water to spread their seeds.  Others, like bloodroot and trilliums, have their seeds spread by ants, a process called myremecochory. Ants gather the seeds and store them in underground nests where they feed upon a fleshy appendage attached to each seed. In this way, the ants essentially plant the seeds in an environment where they stay protected until they germinate the following spring. A single ant colony may collect over a thousand seeds in a season, but they do not move them a great distance. In general, a seed is carried no more than two meters from the parent plant. Because offspring and parent plant remain in close proximity, their existence is easily threatened. When their habitat is disturbed or they are removed from the woodland (by changing environmental factors and human or animal activity), it is rare that they recur.

Deer Resistance

After a long winter, foraging deer are fond of fresh new plant growth.  Most spring ephemerals have developed adaptations that make them unpalatable to deer, including hairy stems and leaves, and poisonous sap.

Spring ephemerals and other early-blooming woodland perennials have developed ecological strategies for flowering, pollination and seed production that are completely reliant on the seasonal cycles of our native woodlands, on the growth patterns of our native plants, and on the availability of our native pollinators. In spring, our woodland floors are carpeted with the blooms of wildflowers that are wondrous examples of the complex inter-relatedness of the natural world.

By Joan Butler

Redvein Enkianthus: Easier to Grow Than to Say

Recently, I came across a list of Cary Award-winning plants. The Cary Award program is designed to promote the use of outstanding plants for New England gardens. It is administered by Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA and is named after Shrewsbury plantsman Ed Cary. One of the purposes of the program is to highlight relatively uncommon plants that New England gardeners can choose with confidence as good performers for their home landscapes. In its first year, 1997, five plants were selected as winners, including one of my favorites, the Redvein Enkianthus.

I first encountered this plant many years ago, while visiting a lovely garden full of towering rhododendrons, mountain laurels, and azaleas in Concord, MA. As I walked along the woodland paths, I glanced up and saw I was beneath a tall, smooth-barked shrub with dangling, bell-shaped creamy pink flowers. Later, I asked the owner about the plant and learned it was a Redvein Enkianthus.


Redvein Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus) is an upright deciduous shrub that is native to the open woodlands of Japan. It has a slow to moderate growth rate, but can eventually reach the size of a small tree (15 feet). It is hardy in Zones 4-7, making it an ideal selection for New England gardens. It has a graceful, layered branch pattern, with leaves clustered at the branch tips. The leaves are elliptical, 2 -3” long with lightly serrated edges. The green to bluish-green summer foliage turns to show-stopping shades of brilliant red, orange and yellow in fall. When grown from seed, the color of autumn foliage can vary from plant to plant. This leads some gardeners to purchase Enkianthus in fall or to select cultivars that are vegetatively propagated and known for fall color.

The flowers are unusual, with a delicate appearance that is best appreciated when viewed up close. Bloom time is late spring/early summer; each flower is one-third to one-half inch long. The flowers hang in clusters near the branch tips and are creamy white accented with red veins. They are followed by dangling, brownish-yellow seed capsules, that add an element of beauty to the winter landscape when frosted with a light coating of snow.

Hybridizers have introduced new cultivars with an increased range of flower color, including ‘Renoir’, which has yellow flowers with pink lobes, and the white flowered ‘Albiflorus’. Flowers may also be pink to red, such as the dark-pink flowered ‘Showy Lantern’, selected by the late Ed Mezzit of Weston Nurseries, and the red-flowered ‘Red Bells’.

The Redvein Enkianthus prefers cultural conditions similar to those required by rhododendrons: acidic soil, with good drainage and moderate moisture. It is useful in the woodland garden, in the shrub border or as a specimen plant. It prefers part shade to full sun. It is considered pest- and disease-free, and is rarely severely damaged by deer.

My own Enkianthus is now nearly ten feet tall and has been pruned to function as a small, multi-trunked tree in my landscape. It is planted next to my deck, where we can enjoy its dainty spring-time flowers at eye-level. Right now, in early March, its pointy little buds are yellow at the base and rosy pink at the tips, and give the sense that spring is just around the corner. In summer, it receives about six hours of midday sun, and is underplanted with daylilies, Hosta ‘Sun Power’ , Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’, Carex ‘Evergold’, and a smattering of self-sowing, white-flowered Nicotiana.

The Redvein Enkianthus is easily grown and deserves to be more widely used in the home landscape. It is a valued addition to the woodland garden and is also ideal for small gardens, due to its slow growth rate. It offers four-season interest with its delicate spring flowers, rich green summer foliage, brilliant autumn color, and the winter prominence of its seed capsules and smooth gray-brown bark. I wouldn’t be without this graceful, distinctive shrub.

By Joan Butler

Spring Ephemerals: Early to Bed and Early to Rise

My husband’s Uncle Charles is an avid outdoorsman who loves to hike and canoe all over the country. At the young age of 81, he is constantly conquering another river, portaging his canoe over landmass obstacles or encountering a bear in the campground of a national park. When we started writing our gardening articles last year, I learned that he is also an avid naturalist, and has been photographing our native wildflowers for years. I had just recently become interested in spring ephemerals, and knew most of them only from friends’ gardens. It was a thrill to see his photos of Hepatica, Bloodroot, Trilliums, Erythronium, Jeffersonia, Uvullaria, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Phlox captured in their forest habitats throughout the U.S. and Canada.

For those of us gardening in northern climates, spring ephemerals stretch the gardening season with their early blooms. Many spring ephemerals are native to our North American woodlands, where springtime begins slowly and ends with a crescendo of blossoms that carpet the forest floor in May. These early wildflowers can be effective and adaptable additions to the home shade garden.

 You will be surprised at the number and variety of cultivars of our early spring bloomers: 40 species of trillium, 20 species of erythronium, more than 100 cultivars of hepatica, to name just a few—there are ample opportunities for collectors!

As with all living things, having knowledge of a plant’s natural habitat and lifecycle produces success in the home garden. Spring ephemerals represent a unique ecological strategy and share these traits:

Quick Growth Cycle. Spring ephemerals are perennial wildflowers that develop their aerial parts - stems, leaves, and flowers - early each spring and then quickly bloom, go to seed and die back to their underground parts (roots, rhizomes, and bulbs) for the remainder of the year. Many emerge in April and are completely gone by June.

 Forest Dwellers. In early spring, the forest provides a warmer habitat than open field. Trees absorb the heat of the sun with their trunks and slowly radiate this heat to the air at night, when frost is still a threat to small plants. Until the trees leaf out, the sun’s rays can thaw and warm the soil of the forest floor. Trees also act as a windbreak, reducing the “wind chill” factor in the woodland.

 Reaching for the Light. Spring ephemerals take full advantage of early spring sun by blossoming before the forest trees leaf out.

 Moisture Lovers. Early spring is also the time of year when soil moisture is at the highest because the trees are not actively soaking up all the available water.

 Early Feeders. Soil nutrients are at their highest levels in early spring, when decay of the previous year’s leaves produces a bumper crop of nutrients in the soil. The spring ephemerals have first crack at this abundant food supply.

 Early to Bed. Once the leaves of taller plants expand and command the light and water, the ephemerals simply go dormant. Reserving the nutrients they gathered in their tubers, rhizomes, or other underground storehouses, they wait quietly until they can be “early to rise” the following year.

So if you want to add beauty and interest to your early spring gardens, look for the spring ephemerals that will enchant you with their woodland wildflower magic.

Liriope’s Stripes Add Flair and Finesse

One of the benefits of belonging to a garden club is that you are often introduced to new plants. Gardeners are generous folks and enjoy sharing their plants, especially when they are redesigning a garden bed to make room for new acquisitions. Healthy gardens produce a bounty of perennials that need division from time to time, and most gardeners cannot bear to toss their divisions into the compost pile. So, if there is an overflow of a particular plant, babies will be potted up and either donated to the annual plant sale, or brought to a meeting and shared with other members. That is how I came by one of my favorite perennials for the winter garden – variegated liriope.

Sometimes known as lilyturf or monkey grass, liriope is a grass-like flowering perennial from East Asia. It may be either solid green or variegated, and has been widely used in the South as a groundcover due to its hardiness in Zones 6-10. Now that much of Massachusetts is reclassified as Zone 6, it is sure to be used much more widely here as well.

Variegated liriope grows to about 12” tall, with leaves striped in white or gold. It blooms in late summer with lavender, purple or white spikes that are followed by clusters of bluish-black berry-like fruits. With its foliage holding well through the winter, variegated liriope is an ornamental perennial for most of the year.

There are two species of liriope, which dictate its use in the garden. The first is liriope muscari – a clumping perennial with typically lavender or purple blooms. Because it stays where it is planted, liriope muscari is the preferred choice for flower beds or as an edger. It combines beautifully with evergreen shrubs such as boxwoods, and with perennials with contrasting leaf shapes, such as large-leaved hostas and hellebores. Variegated cultivars include ‘Silvery Sunproof’, ‘John Burch’ and ‘Gold Band’.

Liriope spicata is the “running” liriope, a vigorous grower that spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes. It will quickly cover a wide area, making it an excellent groundcover, and can be used to retain soil on slopes and banks. It is tough enough to be planted in dry shade around trees and at the edges of walks or roads. Spicata’s flowers are slightly smaller than muscari’s, and range from white to lavender. ‘Silver Dragon’ is a variegated cultivar whose foliage and lavender flowers light up shady areas.

Variagated liriope is a deer-resistant, low-maintenance perennial. It can be grown in both sun and shade, but looks best in partial shade where its color is not diminished by lack of sunlight or washed out by an overabundance of it. It requires well-drained soil, and is moderately drought tolerant when established. I treat it just like my other perennials: amend the soil with compost when planting, fertilize once a year in the spring, and top off with a layer of mulch to retain moisture. Since the foliage stays evergreen throughout winter, I trim it off in early spring before new shoots emerge. As the plants grow and mature, they can be dug and divided to increase your supply. This is usually done in the spring, every three years or so, but is not necessary for the health of the plant. However, if you need to make room for a coveted new addition to your garden, variegated liriope divisions are sure to be a welcome gift to friends and neighbors.

Top Ten Perennial Picks for Jazzing Up Your Garden

While attending New England Grows earlier this month, a trade show that highlights new trends in landscaping and horticulture, I heard that Tony Avent was scheduled to speak. His topic was “100 Perennials I Wouldn’t Garden Without”, and I knew I couldn’t miss it. Tony Avent is a plant explorer, hybridizer, all-around plant guru, and owner of the famous Plant Delights Nursery, a mail-order and retail nursery in North Carolina. This exciting nursery is dedicated to offering the best, the newest, and the strangest garden-worthy perennials to gardeners around the world

Tony’s enthusiasm about plants is contagious. I walked away wanting to try every plant he mentioned, but was able to create a short-list of ten fabulous, unusual perennials.

Japanese Peony (Paeonia japonica). A peony that prefers shade! Most peonies are sun-lovers, but not this charming woodland peony. It makes an 18" x 18" clump of grey-green foliage that is topped in early spring with lovely 3" wide white cups with yellow stamens. After flowering, pods form that split open to reveal incredible, gorgeous metallic-blue seeds on red stalks. The Japanese peony is recommended as a deer-resistant specimen in the woodland garden and in the shady perennial border.

Bush Clematis (Clematis integrifolia ‘Rose Colored Glasses’). Clematis integrifolia, also known as solitary clematis, is a non-climbing herbaceous perennial that forms a dense, sprawling mound 12-24” tall. The cultivar ‘Rose Colored Glasses’ produces two-inch long flowers that are rose-pink, nodding, and urn-shaped, with twisted sepals. Each flower appears singly atop its own slender stem and is followed by ornamental silver-green seed heads. It has an incredibly long bloom time, from May to July, with continued lesser bloom into September. It flowers best in full sun with adequate moisture and makes a beautiful addition to cottage gardens, meadow gardens, and perennial borders.

Heucherella ‘Solar Eclipse’.  This amazing little plant forms 16" wide clumps composed of dark purple leaves, each edged in a ring of chartreuse. It strongly resembles a zonal geranium. It retains its intense color throughout the growing season. It is topped in late spring with bottle-brush spikes of white flowers. I have grown other Heucherella cultivars, and they are easy, relatively pest-free and offer dramatic foliage. I can’t wait to try this one! Heucherellas require part sun to light shade. It should be planted in regular garden loam and looks lovely in shady gardens accompanied by hosta, epimediums and other shade-loving perennials.

‘Millenium’ Allium. This allium forms a 1’x1’ clump of narrow, glossy green leaves that is topped by 2” rose-purple flowers in late summer. Very floriferous, it will bloom for over a month. I was especially interested in it when I heard that it is the product of a hybridizing program of a well-known allium breeder from Massachusetts, Mark McDonough. Plant Allium ‘Millenium’ in full sun and this deer-resistant little plant will reward you with a full season of shiny, strappy foliage and a stunning floral display.

‘Tomato Soup’ Coneflower (Echinacea ‘Tomato Soup’). Plant hybridizers have been expanding the color-range, size and form of our native perennial coneflower. This new introduction, ‘Tomato Soup’, forms a 32” tall clump that is topped in summer with flowers that are indeed the color of tomato soup. The 5” wide blossoms are attractive to hummingbirds and bees, and its seeds are favored by birds. Echinacea are sun-loving, drought-tolerant perennials that require excellent drainage, particularly in winter.

‘Low Down’ Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifoius ‘Low Down’). Finally, a swamp sunflower for the small garden! Our native Helianthus normally reach heights of 8 feet, suitable for the back of the perennial border. But this new cultivar produces 18”x18”clumps for the mid-border, that are covered in September with large, yellow sunflower blossoms. Native to the US, swamp sunflower is a sun-lover that performs well in both wet and dry soils.

Hosta ‘Dixie Cups’. This hosta is a Plant Delights Nursery introduction, and was hybridized by Tony Avent himself. I love the name. It is a medium-sized blue hosta with leaves that are cupped and corrugated. It requires part sun to light shade with adequate moisture and would look lovely planted with purple-leaved heucheras, ferns and golden Hanoke grass.

Bristle-leaf Sedge (Carex eburnean). This little grass is native from the east coast to the west coast and is hardy in Zones 2-8, yet it is an uncommon sight in the home garden. It produces 8” wide clumps of soft green, narrow foliage. Amazingly, it is one of the few grasses that will grow well in the shade. It is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant, and looks great in the woodland garden as well as the rock garden.


Sedum ‘Frosted Fire’. Sedum ‘Frosted Fire’ is a gorgeous variegated hybrid of the popular Sedum ’Autumn Joy’. It produces 15”x15” clumps of fleshy green foliage edged in cream. It is topped in late summer by red flower heads that age to bronze. Sedum ‘Frosted Fire’ is drought-resistant and easy to grow in full sun, but dislikes wet soils.

‘Lightning Strike’ Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Lightning Strike).  This variegated Tricyrtis makes an outstanding addition to the shade garden. Its 2’ tall arching stems are clothed with golden leaves streaked with green. In early fall, light lavender spotted flowers, appear along the stems at the leaf axils. This unusual plant is very easy to grow in conditions similar to those preferred by hostas. In fact, it makes a perfect companion plant with hostas , ferns and heucheras in the shady border.

I am already looking forward to a new growing season and am eager to give my new Top Ten Picks a try!

Siberian Cypress: A Feathery Carpet for the Winter Garden

Microbiota decussata, commonly known as Siberian cypress, is a relative newcomer to the horticultural scene. It was first discovered in 1921, high above the treeline in the mountain ranges of eastern Siberia. It is native to only this small, remote region. For the next 50 years, the plant remained largely unknown to the Western world, partly due to the political secrecy of the former Soviet Union. It finally entered the horticultural trade in the 1970s, and has become available in mainstream nurseries in the past 20 years.

Microbiota decussata is the lone species in its genus, but is related to other members of the cypress family – junipers, arborvitae, and false cypress. What makes it a really special garden plant to me, though, is its low, spreading form, cold hardiness, and ability to grow in the shade. With long stems that radiate from the plant’s crown, Siberian cypress reaches a height of only 12” but a dazzling spread of 10’ if given the proper growing conditions. Its foliage is soft and feathery, bright green in spring and summer, turning to a bronzy-purple color in the fall and winter.

Siberian cypress is very cold hardy, surviving Zone 3 (-40 degrees F) winters with ease. It grows on a variety of soils, but needs good drainage. Although it tolerates drier soils once established, a mulch of wood chips, bark or pine needles is recommended to keep the root zone cool and moist. The only other maintenance that I perform is to remove dry leaves that become matted in the shrub’s crown in fall and winter. These can lead to yellowing and eventual die-back of the evergreen fronds.

When it was first introduced in the US, Siberian cypress was touted as a groundcover for shade. Since most conifers, especially the low ones, prefer full sun, this was a major selling point. Although Microbiota will grow in full sun, it prefers a lightly shaded position – not dense shade. I planted my first Siberian cypress 18 years ago in one of the most challenging spots in the garden – beneath a grove of Norway and sugar maples and hemlocks. The lack of moisture and sunlight has kept the plant at a modest 24” diameter, but it has survived. Another Microbiota, planted many years later at the foot of my rhododendrons in partial shade and better soil, extends its lush branches to form a gorgeous 8’ wide circle. With no major pests and diseases, and not bothered by deer or voles, Siberian cypress is a shrub that I can easily recommend to others.

Siberian cypress has many uses in the landscape. Although attractive alone, it is stunning in large groupings. Its low stature, wide spread and ferny, layered foliage, make it an ideal groundcover. I particularly like its texture contrast with broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, hollies, pieris and mountain laurels. In the summer, it is a wonderful companion to large hostas. But the time of year that I appreciate it the most is during my winter walks, when I see how much this hardy survivor from Siberia adds to the beauty of my garden.

Hellebore Foetidus: A True Winter Charmer

When I first became interested in hellebores, Hellebore foetidus was not at the top of my acquisition list. After all, who would want to brush by a “stinking hellebore’ in their garden? Luckily, I couldn’t resist a beautiful healthy specimen at the local big box store one day, and the Stinking Hellebore has become one of my favorite perennials to grow and share.

Although fairly common and easy to find in nurseries, Hellebore foetidus is not widespread in home gardens. It is one of the most interesting hellebores to cultivate, however, especially if you live in the Northeast. Few hellebores are as showy during the late fall and winter, when most perennials are chilling underground. Hellebore foetidus stands proud and tall, looking like a miniature rhododendron. The plant is 2’ tall with spidery evergreen foliage that remains a lush dark green throughout winter. Certain varieties also have distinctive red markings on the stems and along the deeply divided leaves. The bear-claw shape of its leaves has produced a second common name – ‘Bear’s Foot’. The distinctive foliage texture makes this hellebore an interesting companion to almost any plant in the garden.

Hellebore foetidus buds detail.jpg

The icing on the cake are the Stinking Hellebore’s chartreuse bell-shaped buds and flowers that perch proudly atop its beautiful foliage. How many plants boast more than 6 months of bloom, starting in November? Just as the rest of the garden hunkers down for the winter, the Stinking Hellebore forms lush pale green buds that open into clusters of l” flowers with chartreuse bracts. In the early spring, these blossoms are covered with early pollinators that help to disperse the seeds.


After a couple of years in the garden, I was very excited to find baby hellebores growing in the shade of the mother plants, and transplanted a few to my nursery bed to see how they would grow. Like other caulescent hellebores, the Stinking Hellebore is fairly quick (by hellebore standards) from seed to bloom, often blooming in its second year. Mine grew into stout little plants that first season, and I transplanted them into a new area of the garden. Since that time, I have been careful not to mulch around the hellebore plants, and have impressive colonies of both  Helleborus foetidus and niger in my shade bed. Stinking Hellebore plants can be short-lived, so it’s good to let them set seed to provide a constant supply of new plants.

Helleborus foetidus prefers woodland conditions with deep, fertile, moist, humus rich, well-drained soil, and dappled shade. The species is, however, drought tolerant once established. Plants should be shielded from winter winds. Stinking Hellebore has no serious insect or disease problems and all parts of the plant are poisonous, so it is not bothered by deer or voles. And what of the smell? I have found the plants to have a mildly unpleasant odor when bruised, but the scent of the flowers does not deter me from cutting them for a vase. I just don’t keep them on my bedside table.

Hellebore foetidus has many uses in the landscape. With its intriguing, finely cut, dark green foliage, it makes an interesting and nearly evergreen groundcover for average to dry shade. It is also impressive as a single specimen when given plenty of sun. I grow mine in two partly shaded entry gardens with other hellebores, variagated liriope, leucothoe ‘rainbow’ and hostas, where its distinctive form, texture and bloom welcome visitors all through the year.

Hellebore 'Snow Bunting' is Sure to Please

Hellebore 'Snow Bunting' is one of my favorites - an early bloomer in my Zone 5 garden. Its buds begin poking out of the ground in early December, and depending on the severity of the winter, will open in February or March.

This hellebore is an unusual plant from the esteemed Yokoyama Nursery in Japan, a difficult to produce hybrid between H. niger and H. x hybridus.

Each plant produces a beautiful bouquet of pure white, outward-facing flowers that last for months, turning a soft light green as they age. A lovely sight!


Blue Hosta in the Garden

There are very few perennials available to us here in New England that offer the color and form of blue hosta. With colors ranging from deep blue to powdery light blue, they offer a quiet presence that can be used almost anywhere in the shade garden. Plants range in size from giant to small and display a variety of forms and leaf shapes.

Actually, blue hostas are green hostas with a coating of white wax on the leaf  surface, which makes them appear blue. Blue hostas prefer shade: too much sun melts the waxy coating. Like most hosta leaves, they change color throughout the growing season. Blue leaves eventually turn to shades of green.

'Dress Blues' (above) is a medium hosta that forms an upright mound of blue leaves with a yellow margin that lightens to cream as the season progresses. Hosta and ferns make lovely bed-fellows with the delicate fern fronds contrasting and complementing the solid hosta leaves. The dark stems of this fern play off the blue of the hosta leaves, creating subtle harmony.

Conquering Dry Shade

Dry Shade: the words alone are enough to strike fear in the heart of the most intrepid gardener. I recently came across a newly published book that inspires you to garden in the most difficult part of your yard. Written by Graham Rice, Planting the Dry Shade Garden: The Best Plants for the Toughest Spot in Your Garden is a wonderful resource for shrubs, groundcovers and perennials that will survive inhospitable conditions under maple trees, in dark side yards, and on the north side of buildings. 

In this book you'll learn how to prune selectively to admit more light and how to amend soil to increase its moisture retention. You'll also learn about more than 130 plants that accept reduced light and moisture levels. There is an entire palette to help you transform challenging spaces into rich, rewarding gardens. This concise and beautifully illustrated book is a great addition to your garden library.

Graham Rice is an internationally recognized expert on annuals of all kinds who has written 23 books. He trained in horticulture and botany at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and is a garden writer for London's Evening Standard.

New Hellebore Cultivar Blooms Early

New varieties of hellebores continue to be introduced. Thanks to the busy German breeder Hueger, a new cultivar of Helleborus niger has been introduced which blooms as early as Thanksgiving. It is an outstanding bloomer, with a great display of 2-3” pristine white single rose flowers by mid December. This compact new cultivar, growing to  roughly 12” x 12”,  is being marketed under the name Helleborus ‘HGC Jacob’. (HGC stands for Helleborus Gold Collection). It is hardy in zones 5-9.

Astilbe Plumes Grace Shady Retreats

One of the first gardens that I created upon moving into my house was a circular shade bed at the entry to my property. A garden novice at the time, I researched appropriate plants and developed a garden of hostas, astilbes, cinnamon ferns and fringed bleeding hearts. Almost 20 years later, those same carefree plants provide a beautiful annual display, with the pink, red and white astilbes claiming the spotlight in June and July.

 Astilbes, with their elegant feathery plumes of flowers and delicate ferny foliage are native to Asia, and were first introduced to Europe in the late 1800s. Initially, astilbes were grown for forcing and used as potted plants indoors, so early hybridization focused on producing dwarf, floriferous plants. Almost every hybrid astilbe can be traced back to Georg Arends, a nurseryman from northern Germany who started crossing the white japonica species from Japan and the pink davidii species from China to produce most of 180+ hybrid astilbes in the marketplace today. One hundred years later, Arends Nursery, now run by Georg’s granddaughter, continues to introduce new cultivars. Astilbes now range in size from 8” to 48”, blooming times range from late spring to August, and colors include peaches, pinks, reds, whites, purples and lavenders.

 Astilbes bring a graceful, feathery look to the shady perennial garden. They are beautiful both as specimen plants and as mass plantings. Their fine lacy leaves look stunning juxtaposed against the bold textures of hosta, bergenia, ligularia or European ginger. The glossy foliage and soft colors also complement painted ferns and purple heucheras. Given the huge range of cultivars, a long season of bloom can be achieved in the garden. For early to mid-season, 24” tall plants, you can choose ‘Deutschland’ (white), ‘Rhineland’ (pink), ‘Bremen’ (deep pink), or ‘Fanal’ (garnet red). For mid-season bloom, 24” tall, choose ‘Amethyst’ (magenta), ‘Erika’ (pink), ‘Federsee’ (carmine), or ‘Avalanche’ (white). For the late season, there are the short (8-12” tall) varieties for the front of the border, such as ‘Pumilla’ (lilac) and ‘Sprite’ (pink) and the tall (4-5’) varieties for the back of the border such as ‘Taquetti Superba’ (lilac) and ‘Purperkurze’  (reddish purple).

Pest free and deer-resistant, hardy in zones 3-6, astilbes perform well in shady New England gardens, preferring acidic, moist, well-drained soil. In nature, they grow along stream banks in partial shade, so supplemental irrigation is essential during the dry heat of summer. When planting, be sure to work leaf compost, aged manure and peat moss into the soil and mulch with shredded leaves or bark. The mulch helps to conserve moisture and protects the crowns from heaving out of the ground in late winter.

Astilbes are heavy feeders and require high-nitrogen fertilization in spring or fall from a top dressing of composted manure or commercial fertilizers. Some astilbe growers recommend a general purpose lawn fertilizer (20-10-10) applied in early October since the plants grow steadily until frost and form their flower buds in autumn for the next year’s flowers. Deadheading is not required since it will not induce more blooms and the dried seedheads extend the seasonal interest of the plants. To ensure vigorous growth and flowering, astilbes should also be divided every three years in early spring or late summer. To divide, dig up the clump and saw it apart into several sections using an old pruning saw. 

Geraniums: Delicate Beauty for the Perennial Garden

During a recent garden tour, I pointed out a clump of beautiful hardy geraniums to my friend, and got the usual confused look. Upon hearing the term ‘hardy geraniums’, most people look for Pelargoniums, whose big, bright blooms adorn millions of flower boxes and porch planters. The term ‘hardy geranium’ however, refers to a genus of delicate mounding perennial flowers ranging in color from cornflower blues to soft pinks, mauves, purples and  deep maroons. Also called “cranesbills” for the shape of their seedpods, hardy geraniums have flowers and foliage that are smaller and finer than those of pelargoniums, and reward the gardener by returning reliably and blooming profusely year after year.

I grow only six of the 400 species of hardy geraniums that have been identified. The plants are perfectly adapted to Massachusetts gardens, thriving in zones 4-8. Most form low, dense mounds with small cup-shaped flowers that float above the foliage on thin stems, attracting bees and butterflies. The translucent flower petals look particularly beautiful when backlit. While all species exhibit five-petaled, symmetrical flowers and finely divided palmate leaves, some have contrasting splotches or veining. Even when not in bloom, hardy geraniums add beauty to the garden from spring through fall with their leaf shapes color variations.

Hardy geraniums are extremely flexible plants, and whether you are looking to fill a dry, sunny spot, an area with part shade or a groundcover for the woodland garden, you will find a geranium that will suit your situation. I love to use Geranium sanguineum, also known as Bloody Cranesbill, in place of annuals at the front of a border. The plant forms a low (8”), wide mound with a profusion of magenta flowers light up the garden all summer long. In my garden it is gorgeous combined with purple heuchera, lamb’s ears, ‘Blue Star’ juniper and bearded irises.

For those that love masses of true blue, billowy flowers, there are two wonderful geranium varieties: ‘Johnson’s Blue’ and ‘Rozanne’. ‘Johnson’s Blue’ forms 18” mounds of cornflower blue flowers that grace my perennial bed for the month of June. ‘Rozanne’, awarded the title of  “2008 Perennial Plant of the Year”, is  taller with 2.5 inch violet-blue flowers that bloom all summer, and deep green foliage lightly marbled with chartreuse. I fell in love with it when I saw the “Rozanne River” in the Bressingham Garden at Elm Bank.

I recently acquired my first Geranium phaeum, also known as Mourning Widow or Dusky Cranesbill from the Cotton Arbo-retum in Winchester, Mass. Geranium phaeum is one of the taller species, up to 32” in bloom, with purplish brown spots on its leaves and deep maroon, almost purplish black flowers. This geranium can be grown in dry shade and combines superbly with chartreuse hostas and hanoke grass.

Although it is difficult to chose a favorite geranium species, my favorite is Geranium macrorhizum (Bigroot geranium) with its bright pink flowers in early spring, scented foliage which turns a bright scarlett in autumn, and its tolerance of dry, shady areas. I am partial to any plant that survives under my massive maple trees and adds so much beauty to such an inhospitable site.

Hardy geraniums require little care once established. They prefer moderately rich soil, and have no significant pests or diseases. I shear my plants back to their basal foliage once in mid-summer to encourage new leaf growth and reblooming. (The only exception to this is Geranium macrorhizum, which can be deadheaded and needs no shearing.) Geraniums live longer if divided every 3-5 years, and your friends will be happy to receive divisions of these wonderful plants for their own gardens.

Hosta: The Friendship Plant

According to the Perennial Plant Association, hostas have become the No. 1 selling perennial in America. And no wonder. With more than 7,000 named varieties to choose from, there is a size, color and shape of hosta to suit every taste and garden. In addition, this shade-tolerant perennial is easy to grow and serves many functions in the landscape. Large hosta, such as H. 'Sagae' and H. 'Empress Wu', make fantastic focal points. Hostas can be planted in drifts (H. 'Austin Dickinson') or as a ground cover (H. Kabitan').  Hostas also make wonderful edging plants along garden beds or pathways (H. 'Golden Tiara' or H. 'Radiant Edger').

Hostas are native to eastern Asia and were first brought to Europe in the 1700's. They made their way to the U.S. in the 19th century. There are about 40 different species of hosta, nearly all of which are green.  Over the last fifty years, thousands of new hosta cultivars have been introduced through hybridization and “sports” (mutations), and the range of colors has grown to include bold yellows, deep blues, pure white and dramatic variegations.

Hosta are hardy to Zone 3, which means that gardeners living in even the coldest climates can enjoy their beauty. Hosta offer a three-season presence and all change color as the season progresses. Bright yellows can become chartreuse, chalky blues can become green and the yellow centers of certain green hosta can become pure white. Some emerge brightly colored in the spring, then fade, while others are at their peak in the fall. All end the growing season by turning a pale straw yellow, that looks beautiful in the soft light of autumn.

The genus Hosta is a member of the family Liliacea, which includes lilies. Nearly all hosta are summer-flowering, with flowers that grow on a bloom stalk, or scape, that rises out of the center of the plant. Flowers range in color from white to purple; many are striped and some are intensely fragrant, such as H. plantaginea 'Venus'. Hosta flowers last only a day, like daylilies, but mature plants can produce a dozen scapes and hundreds of flowers.  With hosta, it is possible to have flowers blooming all summer long.

While most people think of hosta as a shade plant, most need some sun and many do best in full sun, such as H. 'Stained Glass', and H. 'Guacamole'. Hosta range in size from 10 feet in diameter (H. 'Sum and Substance') to a few inches in diameter (H. 'Shiny Penny' and H. 'Pandora's Box').  Dwarf and miniature hosta are all the rage now. They look wonderful planted in groups in the garden and make fantastic additions to trough plantings.

As if all the choices for size, color and shape aren't enough, you also can select hosta based on their names alone. Who wouldn't enjoy H. 'Queen of the Seas' or H. 'Lakeside Sea Captain' gracing their seaside gardens? I will confess to purchasing hostas because I enjoyed the name. I have H. 'Mountain Mist' because it reminds me of family camping trips, and a beautiful H. 'Three Sisters', because it reminds me of the relationship of my three daughters.

Hosta are called “The Friendship Plant” by the American Hosta Society, because of the friends that are made as people share their hosta and visit each others gardens. I can vouch for that. Since I joined the New England Hosta Society, I have been to many gardens that contain over 1,000 different named varieties of hosta, to gardens owned by hybridizers that contain the newest hosta available, and to more modest gardens.  All along the way, I have met friendly, generous people and have come to appreciate even more the genus Hosta and the beauty and tranquility it brings to the home garden.

Every year, the American Hosta Society hosts a convention somewhere in the United States.  It is attended by hosta afficionados from all over the country and the world. This year, for the first time, it is being held in New England, June 22-26, at the Convention Center-Best Western Royal Plaza in Marlboro, MA. For complete information on the event, go to www.hosta2011.org.

A great online resource for hosta information is www.hostalibrary.org. It describes thousands of hosta in an alphabetized list, with pictures.

By Joan Butler

Trilliums Create an Elegant Understory

One of the most graceful flowers of the woodland garden is trillium, a genus of more than 40 species of spring ephemeral perennials that are native to North America. Commonly called Wakerobin, Wood lily and Trinity flower, trilliums enchant us with single large blossoms poised above three whorled leaves. Thus the Latin name trillium – tres for three leaves, three sepals and three flower petals, and lilium for the lily family that trilliums belong to.

Trilliums make wonderful additions to woodland gardens, combining beautifully with columbines, wild geraniums, mayapples and bloodroot. Like other spring ephemerals, they bloom early, usually in late April to May in New England, then go dormant in the summer. They should be planted with other shade lovers such as ferns and hostas that will grow up to take their place. When in bloom, trilliums are a stunning sight. Their single, large, cup-shaped flowers, 2-4” in diameter with slightly ruffled edges, hover above a rosette of oval leaves on plants that are only 12” high. Some varieties have double flowers, and all produce a berry-like fruit after flowering.

Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) has crisp white flowers that fade to soft pink and rose as they age. Wakerobin (Trillium erectum) is more diminutive in size, with flowers that are a dark reddish-purple, and occasionally pink, white or light green. For a really unusual addition to the garden, look for Trillium cuneatum “Whippoorwill Toadshade” which features attractively mottled gray-green and maroon leaves and  purple flowers.

Trillium flowers should be enjoyed in the garden, but not in the vase. You cannot pick the flowers without picking the leaves, and the leaves provide nourishment for the plant for the following year. The plants grow from rhizomes, and each rhizome may send up as many as eight flower-bearing stems once established. These creeping underground stems allow the plants to spread like a groundcover over time. Trilliums are easy to grow, long-lived plants, surviving more than 25 years if given the right conditions. They are hardy in zones 2-8, and thrive in moist, humus-rich soil in part to full shade. They are best planted in the fall, with the rhizomes set 2 to 4 inches deep, and the soil mulched with leaf mold or compost for the winter.

Trilliums are usually propagated by division, as it takes nearly seven years from seed to blooming plant. They are rarely sold in nurseries, so it’s best to befriend a fellow gardener who is willing to share their collection. My trillium was given to me by a friend who spends her winters in Arizona and returns to the Northeast just in time to see the white trilliums light up her serene shade garden. Located on a winding road in the woods, her garden is filled with the native woodland wildflowers that are exotic to new gardeners and coveted by more experienced ones. I recently found a little Golden Nature Guide to American Wildflowers that my aunt gave me when I was ten years old. To my amazement, it was filled with the wildflowers that have achieved almost cult-like status today – Lady Slippers, Tiarellas, Mayapples, Solomon’s Seal, Jack-in-the-Pulpits and of course, Trilliums. You can purchase trilliums locally from Garden in the Woods in Framingham and from online sources such as Plant Delights Nursery, www.plantdelights.com.

Try Tiarella in Your Shade Garden

In May, the blooms of Tiarella carpet the woodland floor with a layer of foamy haze. The fuzzy flowers are held like little bottle brushes above green leaves that often are centrally marked with maroon. Until recently, Tiarella was only grown in home gardens that were devoted to woodland plants. Now, thanks to the work of plant hybridizers and a wealth of new cultivars, Tiarella has moved into the mainstream as a shade garden perennial.

Tiarella, also known as foamflower, is a deer-resistant wildflower that is native to eastern North America and Asia. Hardy in Zones 3-9, it grows in deciduous woodlands and mountain terrains. It has attractive, low-growing, semi-evergreen foliage. Its leaves are heart-shaped or deeply lobed and are often dramatically patterned. In winter, the leaves darken to red and flatten to the ground. It produces flowers on leafless stems that can range in height from six to fifteen inches. Flowers can be white or suffused with pink.

Roughly speaking, Tiarella can be divided into two types: ground cover and clump-forming. Tiarella cordifolia var. cordifolia is a ground cover that spreads fairly quickly by stolons or runners. It is a good naturalizer. The stolons produce plant offsets that take root and bloom in their second year. Tiarella 'Brandywine' is a cultivar with slightly lobed, hairy leaves with a central maroon splotch. It produces eight-inch tall, graceful white flower spikes that last for weeks. In my garden, it is a well-behaved ground cover that mixes with variegated Solomon's Seal  (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum'), 'Purple Lance' astilbe (Astilbe chinensis 'Purple Lance'), Hosta 'Abba Dabba Do', and ferns.

Tiarella cordifolia var. collina is a clump-forming type. Often, the leaves are deeply lobed and resemble the leaf of a Japanese maple. Dark purple or maroon markings along the central veins of some of the cultivars create season-long interest. The flower spikes are usually densely packed and plentiful. The flowers last for weeks and have great impact in the spring garden. I grow T. 'Spring Symphony' and T. 'Iron Butterfly' in my gardens and wouldn't be without either one. Both have semi-evergreen slightly hairy leaves that form healthy clumps that are six to eight inches tall by twelve inches wide. Both look good for the entire growing season. T. 'Spring Symphony' is extremely floriferous, with dark pink buds that open to fuzzy pink flowers. As an added bonus, it occasionally sets seed. T. 'Iron Butterfly' produces fewer flowers, but has dramatic, deeply lobed leaves with strong markings of dark purple. Both add variety and beauty to my shade gardens as they share space with hosta, epimedium, ferns, and Toad Lily (Trycertis).

Tiarella is easily grown in the home garden. It requires partial shade or full shade. It prefers humus-rich moist soil, but adapts to drier conditions once established. It is a low maintenance plant that is virtually pest-free and seldom needs dividing. Tiarella is useful in the garden as a ground cover or as a clumping perennial and looks lovely when paired with spring-flowering bulbs. It is a charming addition to the home garden. It lights up shady corners with its spikes of flowers and creates season-long interest with its intricately patterned foliage.

Tiarella can be purchased locally at numerous garden centers including Weston Nurseries and from on-line sources such as Mason Hollow Nursery www.masonhollow.com.

By Joan Butler

Hepatica Heralds Spring

There are hundreds of species of flowers that are native to the woodlands of northeastern North America, and nearly 90% of them bloom in the spring. Woodland perennials take full advantage of conditions that are conducive to flowering, by blossoming before the forest trees leaf out. At this time the soil has thawed and warmed, and the rays of the sun can still reach the forest floor. The first to bloom is always skunk cabbage. It blooms before most pollinators are available, so pollination is accomplished by flies that are attracted to its fetid odor. The next to bloom is usually hepatica, a small woodland perennial whose blossoms span the time of available pollinators, relying on flies as well as early bees, beetles and moths. Its clumps of  bright white, blue or purple daisy-like flowers have a delicate scent. This little woodland gem is surprisingly under-used in the home garden, even though it is very noticeable in bloom, very easy to grow and very long-lived.

The genus Hepatica is made up of ten species that occur in the temperate woodlands of North America, Asia and Europe. H. nobilis, H. acutiloba and H. americana are native to North America. They are all evergreen, with three- to seven-lobed basal leaves that may be purple beneath and are often marbled or speckled with silver on top. Leaves may be up to three inches wide on plants that range from three to six inches high. Hepatica is also known as liverleaf. The perceived resemblance of its leaves to the liver has given it its common name and its botanic name: “hepar” is Latin for liver. Although it is considered a poison today, hepatica leaves were used  in the past to cure liver and kidney ailments and to soothe coughs. In the late 1800s, the US was a leading producer and exporter of hepatica leaves for use in herbal remedies.

Unlike most woodland wildflowers, hepatica leaves are evergreen. In the spring, flower stalks emerge from the center of the previous season's basal leaves. The flower stalks are covered with hair, making them appear furry. Like the fur of animals, the hairs protect the hepatica from frost. The difference is that animal fur acts as protection by holding in body heat, but on this plant, the hairs prevent ice condensation, thus protecting this very early-bloomer from the damaging frosts of cold nights in early spring.

Hepatica flowers last for weeks. The petals are actually sepals, each with three bracts. The number of sepals can vary from six to twenty. Older clumps have up to thirty flowering stems covered with silky hair. When the flowers have passed, new leaves emerge, also covered with a downy fur. As the leaves unfurl, they become a shiny, leathery green that darkens with age.

The first time I saw hepatica was at Blanchette Gardens nursery. I was immediately attracted to its leaves, with their unique shape and attractive marbling. It wasn't in bloom at the time, and I really did buy it just on the basis of the foliage. That was about 20 years ago, and I have grown to love this little plant in all its stages. It is the first perennial to bloom in my garden and it seems to glisten as the spring sun reflects off its furry stems. Its fresh green leaves with silver marbling remain an attractive presence in my shade garden right through the winter, when the leaves flatten and hug the ground. In my garden, it grows in the shade between an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and a yellow waxbells (Kirengoshoma palmata), in a bed that includes foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia 'Brandywine'), assorted ferns and numerous hosta and epimedium cultivars. It is very low maintenance. The only attention it receives is a top-dressing of compost and the occasional addition of lime, since it likes soil more neutral than mine.

Hepatica is a beautiful and unique addition to the home shade garden. It prefers conditions that mimic deciduous woodlands: humus-rich, moist, but well-drained, neutral soil, in partial shade. It is a true sign of spring, blooming well before most other garden perennials. Its bright flowers and light scent seem like a tonic after a long winter. And its lovely, leathery leaves continue to attract attention well into fall.

By Joan Butler

Christmas Fern: Fronds in the Snow

My first introduction to the Christmas Fern came at a garden club flower arranging workshop. Everyone brought greens from their gardens to supplement a ‘supermarket bouquet’, and I was amazed when one of the members produced a mass of shiny, lance-shaped fern fronds. Ferns from the garden in February? In New England? I had to get the name of that fern and add it to my shade garden collection.

As it turns out, the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is not as exotic as I had thought. It is one of the most common ferns in eastern North America, found from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota and south to Florida and eastern Texas. Given its wide range, it is an admirable plant, surviving deep freezes in the North and dry heat in the South. Moreover, throughout its distribution, it's often the most common species. If you want to know the name of just one wild fern, you'll get the most mileage from knowing this one.

Ferns were among the first plants to inhabit the earth. They are more than twice as old as the first flowering plants, and their method of reproduction is very primitive. They reproduce not by seed but by microscopic spores. There are more than 12,000 species of ferns in the world today. Ferns enjoyed huge popularity in Victorian times (the craze was called “Pteridomania”) when they were collected and their image was used to embellish pottery, furniture – everything from christening presents to gravestones and memorials. In New England, the Christmas fern was very popular during the Christmas season for wreath-making and other yuletide decorations – hence its common name. Some also believe that the name “Christmas Fern” came from the shape of the pinnae (individual leaflets), which resemble a Santa’s boot or a Christmas stocking.

Christmas ferns are particularly accommodating garden plants. They are adapted to a wide range of conditions, from very dry to moist, and prefer fertile, humusy, well-drained soil in full to part shade. Once established, they will even survive periods of drought. I was particularly happy to learn that they will grow under mature trees - even Norway maples with their huge, thirsty surface roots. They virtually mulch themselves; old fronds fall to the ground in spring as new fiddleheads emerge. They are resistant to pests and diseases and are seldom bothered by deer. Christmas ferns grow slowly to form dense clumps, which can be divided into several plants in the spring. Given adequate soil and moisture, they will also multiply through spores to form a nice colony.

Christmas ferns grow two to three feet tall, and are easily recognizable in a woodland setting since they are one of the few green plants poking through a blanket of snow. Lush new spring growth begins early, as soon as the winter snows melt. Fiddleheads appear sometimes as early as the mayapples, trilliums and other woodland wildflowers. The new fronds are an attractive silver to light green in color, maturing to deep, glossy green. As the new growth emerges, the old fronds begin to quickly wither away.

I was happy to receive ten healthy clumps from a friend’s lakeside garden in the Hudson River valley. Her garden is set on a steep slope to a lake - a perfect habitat for Christmas ferns, which perform a soil conservation function. Their fronds are semi-erect until the first hard frost, after which they recline to the ground, effectively holding in place fallen leaves so that they become soil on the slope. The ferns can be planted in masses or as single specimens that will contrast in form with other shade-loving perennials such as hostas, lily of the valley, hellebores, bleeding hearts and epimidiums.

 For the home gardener, the Christmas fern offers year-round enjoyment, bringing a hint of the lush green forest to the backyard, and an elegant, long-lasting addition to holiday arrangements. 

Luecothoe's Painterly Foliage for the Winter Garden

Foliage, texture and shape all play an important part in choosing a plant for the winter garden. One of my favorite plants for winter landscaping is Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Girard’s Rainbow’ – a graceful evergreen shrub with variegated foliage on red-streaked branches. I first fell in love with the plant visiting my brother in Seattle about 12 years ago. He took me to a huge nursery that was stocked with plants that flourished in the Pacific Northwest but were not widely available here at that time. I could not resist the leucothoe, and brought a small specimen in a 4” pot home with me. Planted under a native dogwood next to my front porch, the leucothoe has thrived and bloomed reliably every year.

 Although it looks somewhat exotic, luecothoe is native to North America, at home along the banks of creeks or massed in front of shrub borders. While there are many varieties of leucothoe, ‘Girard’s Rainbow’ is the most widely available variegated cultivar. Its shiny foliage emerges white, pink and copper on arching stems, maturing to green streaked with cream. Some plants also display burgundy-edged foliage, particularly in winter. This shrub is a slow grower that reaches 3-5 feet tall and wide. Its white, fragrant, and somewhat pitcher shaped blooms are born in clusters similar to blueberry and lily-of-the-valley flowers. Although it blooms prolifically in mid-spring, there is so much foliage that the visual display is not particularly showy.

 This evergreen is easy to grow and quite versatile as a garden shrub. A woodland native, it prefers a site in part shade with deep, acid, well drained soil amended with plenty of organic matter. It needs little or no pruning, but may be rejuvenated if needed by cutting back all the way after flowering.  Mine is pruned whenever I have to create a flower arrangement or just want to bring some greenery indoors– the variegated foliage is beautiful on its own and complements many flowers. Once mature, leucothoe is also easily propagated by snipping off branches that have touched the ground and rooted. I now have many offspring of the Seattle leucothoe growing in my garden and in those of my friends.

 Despite its great looks, leucothoe 'Rainbow' is not very well known, so it is often overlooked by both homeowners and professional landscapers. It makes an ideal plant in borders, foundation plantings or in combination shrub plantings. It is very effective when planted against an evergreen background, and brightens up shady spots. Leucothoe is a natural companion plant to rhododendrons, and is often used to "loosen up" the tight feel that hollies and boxwood give to the landscape. It also looks great surrounded by hostas, ferns and hellebores, and makes a beautiful statement in the winter garden.

Hellebores - Stars of the Winter Garden

The longer I garden in Metrowest Boston, the more I appreciate the importance of winter interest in the garden. While evergreen trees and shrubs provide structure in the garden, it’s wonderful to see the emergence of a perennial flower bud from the groundshortly after Christmas – the hellebore! Sometimes referred to as 'ChristmasRose' or 'Lenten Rose', hellebores are the stars of the late winter/early spring garden. Plants generally bloom between December and March in cultivation, though some begin earlier, and others continue into April and May, particularly in gardens with colder spring climates. Nearly every garden has a spot for hellebores, and the plants will thrive in many different environments.Still, they remain unknown to many gardeners despite their toughness, beauty, hardiness, and wonderful habit of blooming in winter when most other plants remain dormant.

The majority of hellebores are deep-rooted, stout plants, with thick, shiny, green foliage. The large leaves may persist through winter, but not all plants are wintergreen in all climates. The plants grow 12-18” in height, and gradually increase indiameter to form large clumps with masses of nodding flowers. Once established,most hellebores make drought-tolerant, particularly if given some dappled shade in locales of long, hot and/or dry summers. Although hellebores are almost invariably sold as shade plants, in most garden conditions they will perform their best if given some sun. They prefer rich soil with plenty of humus and a mulch of shredded leaves or bark, and are deer resistant.

Hellebore flowers have five petals, and some species resemble wild roses, which is why theircommon names include “Christmas rose” and “Lenten rose”. They do not belong tothe rose family however, but to the buttercup (Ranunculaceae) family. In the past decade, as hellebores have increased in popularity, hybridizing has vastly improved the color range of the flowers from near-blacks, deep purples, andslate grays through rich reds, cherry-blossom pinks, yellows, pure whites and soft, creamy lime greens. Many have dots or blotches of a contrasting color around their centers. New hybrids also include those with double flowers (Helleborus “Royal Heritage Mix”;). In my garden, the flowers remain on the plant for almost three months, turning from their original hue to a soft shade of green over time. and those with their flowers turned up (Helleborus “Ivory Prince”;).


In a lightly shaded garden, hellebores look beautiful combined with pulmonarias, ferns, and lamiums. In my own garden, I like to place hellebores where I will easily see them in winter and early spring – near the driveway and walkways to the house.A grouping of nine hellebores plays center stage in a circular bed next to the driveway, surrounding a silver gazing globe on an ornate pedestal. From November to April, the hellebore foliage and flowers are the only visibleplants in that bed. As spring unfolds, the foliage of coral bells, astilbes, cinnamon ferns and variegated hostas gradually fill in, and by the time that the hellebore flowers have faded, the other perennials are in their prime.

Some of the most common species of hellebores are Helleborus niger, the “Christmas Rose”, which blooms in winter; Helloborus orientalis, the “Lenten Rose”, which blooms in early spring; Helleborus occidentalis, Helleborus argutifolius, and Helleborus foetidus. The new color forms are hybrids of Helleborus orientalis and areusually labeled as Helleborus x. hybridus.

Hellebores may be purchased in local nurseries, and are also available from mail order sources such as Pine Knot Farms (www.pineknotfarms.com), and Heronswood Nursery (www.heronswood.com).