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August 3, 2010 > Pat Kite's Garden: Hellebores

Pat Kite's Garden: Hellebores

By Pat Kite

Quite accidentally I have become a Hellebore fan. One rainy March day I surveyed my garden cacophony and discovered this small leafy plant with pretty purple flowers. I figured it was a weed, given the semi-shady difficult garden section. However the flowers stayed and stayed. Eventually I meandered through my garden book to figure out what it was. Aha! A Hellebore, which must have been donated by some sparrow or jay; I certainly didn't plant it.

Hellebore is such a discouraging moniker, making one think of something yucky. Apparently this was one of the 19 Hellebore species that didn't demand a lot of water and oodles of soil pampering. Its moniker: Helleborus x hybridus, which, according to my Horticultural Society reference is "tolerant of all but very poorly drained or dry soils." Welcome to local clay soil. By June, I was so excited by the two-inch purple flowers that didn't fade out, I bought some more. Plant stores just love to see me coming.

My newer ones are white. They have flowered and flowered. By August they seem a little weary, but flowers are still there. Apparently there are yellow, reddish-pink, blue, blackish, and green versions too, but I haven't found them yet. Most Hellebores offered are Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, which I am told is quite a prima donna that doesn't do sparkling well around here. How did this pretty plant get its yucky name? Helleborus is believed to come from the Greek word helleboros or "eaten by fawns." This, of course, doesn't make any sense, since munching any part of the plant will make animals and people quite sick.

In an 1656 text, the writer Coles expounds, "Hellebore is dangerous given to delicate bodies, yet it may be safely given to Countrey people, which have tough bodies, so that the constitution of the party receiving, as well as the quality of the thing to be received, is to be considered, for that which is one man's Meat, is another man's Poysen. In Greek mythology, Hellebores were somehow used by the physician Melampus to cure the insane daughters of the sea god Proteus. "In the good old days, even before my time, a bouquet of Hellebores was reputed to rid a home of evil spirits.

By the 1880s, fashion journals suggested wearing hellebore flowers as winter hair ornaments. It is worth giving Hellebores a chance in your semi-shade garden. Clay soil seems to be o.k. but perk it up a bit with some packaged soil in a nice big hole. The plant grows about 12 inches high. It stays green all year in our area. For Helleborus x hybridus, somewhat adequate watering works fine. For other Hellebores, more water and fussing are required. Wherever you put it, leave it there. This plant doesn't transplant well. It will multiply nicely by underground rhizomes. To view an established bed, visit Filoli in Woodside, CA. Their 17 beautifully planted acres are truly a garden adventure.

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