Hellebores — heavenly and far from boring

hellebore (Helleborus sp.)

hellebore (Helleborus sp.)

The best part about writing a garden column is the opportunity it provides for spreading the word about wonderful plants that most people know nothing about. Indeed, it should come as no surprise if garden columnists view themselves as preachers or even proselytizers, urging their readers to convert or transform bland segments of their gardens by planting with more interesting or exotic species.
The Lenten rose is a decorative, yet durable plant for Valley gardens that deserves more of our horticultural attention. Also known as hellebore (hell-uh-BORE), the Lenten rose is anything but boring. It blooms for many months in winter and spring with flowers that are typically pale green, but may also appear flushed with pink, burgundy or purple.
The Lenten rose prefers a site that is shaded, and excellent soil drainage is a must. If your soil is heavy, amend with plenty of compost before planting. Gypsum, probably the least expensive material for softening clay soil, will similarly improve drainage when it is dug into the ground. Although they need good drainage, hellebores are not drought-tolerant and require some moisture in their root zone throughout the year.
Two notes of caution regarding hellebores: first, all plant parts are poisonous; second, hellebores should not be moved during the first few years after planting. Established plants may be carefully divided and moved as long as you are willing to wait several years for them to re-establish and rebloom. By the same token, hellebores in the right soil will readily reseed themselves, young plants slowly developing to produce flowers whose coloration may differ greatly from that of the mother plant.
Hellebores – some species of which have attractive, saw-toothed leaf margins – belong to the buttercup family (Ranunculus), a group noted for its attractive foliage. Meadow rue (Thalictrum polycarpum) is a California native buttercup for the shade garden that has soft leaves atop succulent stems that rise from underground in comely clumps. Anemone or windflower, another type of buttercup, is one of the standards of the Southern California bulb bed, flowering now in red, white and blue. Fall-blooming Japanese anemones bloom in white or pink.
Other plants for partial shade that would grow well with hellebores include ferns of every description, low-growing palms and mahonias. Mahonia, or Oregon grape, is a sturdy grower that also is noted for saw- toothed foliage. Native to California, mahonia has edible blue fruit that is attractive to birds and other wildlife.
Japanese maples also are seen growing in the proximity of hellebores, due to their similar light requirements. A Japanese maple variety called “Coral Bark” (Acer palmatum “Sango-kaku”) has become popular in Valley gardens. In addition to its salmon- to red-colored bark, which, after its leaves have fallen, glimmers brightly in winter gardens, the coral bark Japanese maple can take more sun than the average Japanese maple variety. It is a fine specimen tree for light shade, partial sun or container gardens.
TIP OF THE WEEK: One of the easiest herbs to grow is borage (Borago officinalis). Plant a few seeds and within a few years you will have hundreds of plants popping up each spring. Borage is covered with a mysterious silvery down and has star-shaped blue flowers on plants that quickly grow up to 3 feet tall before dying in late spring or early summer. Plants are easily removed and tossed onto the compost heap. Meanwhile, seeds will have already been deposited all over the garden, waiting to sprout next year without any outside help. Too many borage seedlings in your yard? Not a problem. Uproot them when they are an inch tall and consume them like any other edible sprout. Alternatively, detach borage flowers – which have a cucumber taste – before they can set seed and toss them into your salad.

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