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Helleborus flowerLooking for a perennial that loves the cool temperatures of winter and early spring? It's hard to beat the gorgeous early flowering perennial 'Helleborus' family! As a result of modern hybridization there are countless new varieties in a wide range of flower colors and combinations of colors. Probably the outstanding characteristic of this perennial is its unusual flowering season, which extends from mid winter into early spring, depending upon the varieties grown.

For years, the best known and most frequently grown variety was Helleborus niger, better known as the 'Christmas Rose'. The single flowers, which appear during or shortly after the holiday season resemble the old-fashioned single rose. Flower colors are white with a tinge of pink, turning purplish-rose and green with age. Height is about 12 to 18 inches. I think this is one of the more difficult of the Helleborus to grow, and with a choice of all the new ones, it's not nearly as showy.

I understand there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of new varieties, some of which have semi-double and double flowers. Of course, not all of them are yet available to the home gardener. The four most readily available are H. corsicus; H. foetidus; H. orientalis and H. niger, mentioned earlier. Here's just a word about these other three:

H. corsicus - with attractive March and April chartreuse flowers. It may grow up to 36 inches in height. Another very popular variety.

H. foetidus - February to April flowers are light green with a purplish margin. Dark green foliage on 18 inch plants.

H. orientalis - this one is best known by the name 'Lenten Rose'. One of the most colorful in shades of green to purple; rose and white with deeper purple spotting.

LOCATION - part to full shade is an ideal planting spot. So the north or east side of the house would be ideal. Select a spot where there is good drainage; ample summer moisture; and where their roots remain cool, throughout the growing season.

PLANTING - add generous amounts of organic humus into the planting soil. Peat moss, compost, leaf-mold or processed manure (the bagged stuff) are ideal soil additives, at planting time. Set the crown of the plant right at soil level. Mulching a few inches away with processed manure or compost is beneficial.

FEEDING - a light application of a liquid fertilizer in April, May or June is recommended. Apply around the soil and on the foliage, following application directions.

TRANSPLANTING OR DIVIDING - since they are slow to re-establish, it's best to leave them alone. However, if it is necessary to move them, do it in September, October or November. New container grown plants can be transplanted at any time. New plants are most readily available in the late winter and early spring when the plants are in bloom.

CUTTING FLOWERS - growers say they do not need any special care. However, flower arrangers claim they have best success if the stems are seared in boiling water, then placed in cold water, in a cool room for several hours. Keep the cut flowers in cool water and change the water every two or three days. You can insert a wire up the stem and through the flower to keep them standing upright.

When the flowers are left uncut, it's not unusual for them to set seed. Simply collect the seed, cure it over winter, and sow the seed into a greenhouse bench or you can try starting them in a pot or commercial potting soil, in a warm sunny window.

The newer varieties are generally found at specialty nurseries, mail-order firms or sometimes at the larger independent nurseries or garden centers.

If you're looking for an early flowering shade perennial, it's pretty hard to beat the beauty of the late winter and early spring flowering Helleborus.


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