How To Grow Hellebores for Winter Blooms

What flowers outside in the cold of winter? Hellebores!

Every winter, beginning around Thanksgiving, I look for flower buds on my Christmas Roses, a type of hellebore that blooms in the winter. Then in early spring I look for flowers on my Lenten Roses, another hellebore that blooms well before many perennials have even started to show new shoots.

What Is a Hellebore?

Hellebores are perennial flowers in the plant genus Helleborus. Most of the hellebores we grow in our gardens today originated in Europe and Turkey. Unlike other perennial flowers, hellebore leaves stay green throughout the winter, and they bloom in winter or early spring.

We call winter-blooming hellebores Christmas Roses, and those blooming in early spring Lenten Roses. But they aren’t members of the rose family. They belong to another family, Ranunculaceae, which includes delphiniums and clematis.

Because the roots, shoots and stems of hellebores contain a toxic substance, deer don’t eat them, pleasing many gardeners.

Types of Hellebores

Two types of hellebores are most commonly sold.

  • Helleborus niger is the Christmas Rose. Hardy in U. S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 8, it grows about a foot tall and wide. Most have white blooms and may begin to bloom in December, even under snow cover. ‘HCG Josef Lemper’ and ‘Potter’s Wheel’ are two named varieties. A closely related hybrid, ‘HGC Cinnamon Snow,’ also blooms early, with pink buds that open to become white flowers. Occasionally you may see them for sale as blooming potted plants during Christmastime.
  • Helleborus orientalis and Helleborus x hybridus are considered Lenten Roses. Hardy in Zones 4 through 8, they also grow about a foot tall and wide. They begin to flower in early spring, in colors from green to white to pink, red and purple. For a particular flower color or type, choose a named variety. Buy them from an online nursery if your local garden center doesn’t carry them.

When To Plant Hellebores

Plant hellebores in spring or in early fall so they become established before cold weather. Hellebores may take several years to settle into their new garden spot, but once established they’ll live a long time.

If conditions are right, some hellebores may even self-sow. If you find seedlings around the base of your established hellebores, dig them up and replant them elsewhere. Keep in mind their flower colors, especially for Lenten Roses, may not be the same as the original plant.

If you purchased a blooming Christmas Rose as a potted plant in December, you can plant it out in your garden in the spring. Once it finishes blooming, keep it growing indoors by putting it in a cool spot. Be careful not to overwater it.

Before planting, harden it off by putting it outside in a protected spot for a short time on warm spring days. Then gradually increase the outdoor exposure. Plant in the garden after the last threat of a hard freeze has passed.

Where To Plant Hellebores

Hellebores prefer part-shade to full-shade and well-drained soil. Any location that protects them from winter winds is ideal.

How To Plant Hellebores

Once you’ve found a suitable location, plant your potted hellebore at the same depth it grew in the pot. Keep it well-watered until it becomes established. Be sure to give it room to grow.

What To Do With Hellebores in Summer

In summer, you don’t need to do anything. They’ll form a green mass of leaves and stay green through winter.

In winter and early spring, watch for flower buds to form. At that time, carefully remove old foliage to give the flowers room to grow and be seen. Wear gloves to protect your skin from the sharp edges on the leaves and the toxins within them.

The plants will look a little rough after cutting back the foliage. But in a matter of weeks, as the flowers form and new foliage grows, they’ll recover and look great.

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Carol J. Michel
Carol J. Michel is an award-winning author of several books including five gardening humor books and one children's book. As the holder of degrees from Purdue University in both horticulture and computer technology, she spent over three decades making a living in healthcare IT while making a life in her garden. She started writing about gardening on her blog called May Dreams Gardens which lead to numerous magazine articles, her books, and a podcast called The Gardenangelists. She was recently named a GardenComm Fellow by Garden Communicators International.