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Making hay of hellebores

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01/22/2002
Making hay of hellebores

Depending on which USDA Zone you live in, the time is now or soon approaching to cut down your hellebores' old foliage. What?? You don't have any hellebores, or don't even know what one is? Then take a detour to Les Jardins de Bellevue under "Visiter les jardins français" and find out about this wonderful plant.

But if you do have hellebores (Helleborus orientalis or H. niger), and they're starting to show flower buds, as in the photo at left, don't delay in removing the foliage that has persisted through the winter from the previous year. It's always difficult to get up the gumption to do this, because unless you live in Zone 5 or northward, your hellebores' leaves still look pretty good. It's hard to cut down all that bright green foliage when there's so little else left that's green. But if you look closely, you'll see the leaves are starting to brown at the edges here and there and splay outward a bit to reveal the cluster of glistening, burgeoning buds at their center (see below).

If you live in Zone 5 or colder, wait until your hellebores show their buds. Just when this happens varies enormously in these zones with the microclimate and amount of snowcover. But wherever you live, once those buds show up, don't delay. Cut the stems of the previous year's leaves right at ground level. Don't leave ugly stumps of stems which will detract from the beauty of the emerging blossoms.

What's the rush? While the hellebore--curious plant that it is--begins opening its first blossoms while the buds are still unfurling almost at ground level, the flower stems will rapidly enlongate, mingling with the long stalks of the previous year's leaves. If you wait around, removing the old foliage will take several times as long and be much trickier, as it is easy to accidentally--and tragically--cut a flower stem instead of a leaf stalk. Also, the old foliage hides the splendor of the emerging blossoms. As the French say, "Il faut les degager, or "one must disengage them," that is, disengage them from the tangling and overshadowing embrace of all those old leaves.

After "disengagement," your hellebores should resemble the photo at left. The small, shiny hellebore leaves you see around the margins of the photo are actually one-year-old seedlings of the mother plant. Since they're not blooming age yet, and have such a small amount of foliage, I don't bother with them.

One warning...the above advice applies to the Lenten rose and Christmas rose (H. orientalis, H. niger) only. If you are growing Helleborus corsicus, seen in bud in the photo below and in flower at the head of the article, or Helleborus foetidus, or any other offbeat species that bears its flower buds at the terminals of winter-persistent leafy stems, obviously don't cut them down.

Otherwise, go ahead and make hay of those hellebores.

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