Sunday, December 10, 2006

Frosty Flowers

Hellebores are some of the toughest winter flowers. They are related to the hardy buttercups that decorate meadows with gold in spring. However, these beauties will produce winter flowers even with a few inches of snow on the ground. Hellebores niger, the Christmas rose, begins blooming in mid to late fall. Once established it will produce flushes of bloom straight through winter until spring. There are varieties with flowers ranging from white, pale yellow, to pink and deep rose. Flowers range from 1-1/2 to 3 inches across. They have a nodding bell like habit that is best displayed by growing in an elevated container. Plants grow about 12 inches tall and spread up to two feet when mature.

Another variety, the Lenten Rose (Hellebores orientalis) begins blooming in mid winter and continues through early spring. These plants are a little taller, from 18 inches up to two feet. They are available in all the same colors as the Christmas rose. They are just as care free and will produce cold season flowers just when you need a reminder of spring.

Consider growing your Hellebores in portable containers. They need shade in summer and winter cold, but they can stand being brought in the house for short periods of time. While the exact timing of their blooms can be a bit fickle, if you’re lucky, you might have blooms to showcase over the winter or spring holidays.

Once the weather warms up these plants tend to go dormant for a few weeks to a month. If you wish to plant them out in the garden, or move them to a larger container, this is the time. A spot with good drainage, summer shade, and lots of organic matter will make them happy. Once they send up new leaves they should be disturbed as little as possible. The buds for next winter’s flower show are hiding, dormant for now, in their attractive green foliage.

Hellebores are bothered by few pests. Even deer, slugs, and gophers are said to leave them alone. The plants are slightly toxic and were once used medicinally in Europe and Asia. While poisoning is rarely reported, they should not be planted where young children, pets, or livestock may be tempted to sample their foliage. If plants can be kept evenly moist and shaded over our hot summers, they should live up to ten years or more. Hellebores will occasionally self sow, and if happy the clumps will eventually become crowded and need divided. Whether you are looking for a unique hostess gift, something to dazzle winter time guests, or something special for a shady corner, Hellebores has a lot to offer.

There are a number of other easy plants that can provide winter time cheer, although few of them are as carefree as Hellebores. When visiting your garden center or nursery keep your eyes open for the following plants in six packs or four inch containers. For a winter show, you need to select plants with flower buds well formed or nearly ready to open.

There are several types of African Daisies that will bloom in winter. An open spot with good drainage or a container or raised bed will make them happy. Make sure the plants you purchase have nice fat flower buds. Most African Daisies are low growing, slow spreading plants. But there are many varieties, so be sure to read the plant labels so you know what you are getting.

Calendula was named for the calendar. It can produce flowers all through the year. Individual plants are short lived, but once you have them established they are reliable self sowers. For best luck with winter flowers, purchase budded plants from the nursery. These bright yellow, orange, and gold flowers like a sunny open spot.

Stocks are an old fashioned flower that can be coaxed into blooming during cool weather. Plant them near a south or west facing wall or fence or better yet, in a container placed on a sunny porch. These flowers only grow a foot or so high and tend to be rather spindly. However they make up for their lack of substance with a heady and delightful perfume.

Snap Dragons are often associated with summer, but if you find plants for sale with fat flower buds, you are in for a treat. New cultivars are available in a number of colors and flower forms including those that resemble azaleas, some with ruffled and double flowers, as well as the traditional snapping dragons. These flowers will tolerate some shade and soggy soil. However they make happier bushier plants when grown in a sunny well drained spot.

We covered Sweet Alyssum in a previous article, but it is worth mentioning again. It is a low growing perennial available in a number of colors. It can be planted at any time, and it will provide several flushes of blooms through out the year. They do best in an area with full sun and good drainage.

Winter time flowers are not really frivolous. They provide nectar and pollen to the good bugs that pollinate our food crops and that help us control pests. So while you beautify your yard, you can feel good about your contribution to the garden’s environment.

Hellebores plants can be ordered from Wayside Gardens: (800) 213-0379 Seeds for Hellebores and all the other plants mentioned are available from Thompson and Morgan: (800) 274-7333

That’s all for now, but stay tuned, next time we will be growing the very delectable winter herb, Sweet Cecily. Meanwhile, you can probably find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, Nov 7, 2006. Posted here with permission.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you like Hellebores especially those with Green flowers - You have to see the Heronswood Nursery collection which includes Helleborus x hybridus 'Phoenix'. Masses of olive green flowers with a burgundy margin bloom in early March.