A Little Something Green
Snow. Well, it is December, after all, and I suppose to be expected. Seems a little early this year, but every bit of winter moisture is most welcome, even though we’re all going to grouse and complain bitterly about it. (Whatever happened to zone 7?). With temperatures dipping into the single digits a blanket of the white stuff will protect plants and keep the cold from freeze-drying them, as it could with bare ground.
It’s amazing the amount of plants that stay green in the garden all winter here. Years ago a gardening friend harped on me constantly about planting more for winter interest, and I guess all that nagging must have sunk in because on a walk around the garden yesterday I noticed that there was green everywhere, besides the junipers, nandinas, hollies and other evergreen shrubs and trees. There were holly and Christmas ferns, St John’s wort, plenty of spring bulb foliage—scillas, grape hyacinths—as well as naked lady and saffron leaves; dianthus, spiderwort, arum italicum, heucheras, lamb’s ear, perennial geraniums, and basal leaves of most of the composite (daisy) family including coneflowers, rudbeckias, and daisies. I found liriope, honeysuckle, ajuga, euonymous, vinca minor, strawberry begonas (saxifraga sarmentosa), enkianthus, pachysandra, wintergreen and lamium. Plenty of spring blooming wildflowers get their start in late autumn, and there were tiny delicate wild ferns just coming up, corydalis, violets galore, lunaria, Virginia waterleaf, and my latest experiment, a loved plant from my childhood, trailing arbutus. There’s even a dandelion or two, butter yellow against the still-green grass!Saxifrage (strawberry begonia)
Hellebore with Arum Italicum
But the hellebores steal the winter show, big, lusty dark green leaves; old plants are nearly big enough to be shrubs themselves. The so-called Christmas rose, H. niger, supposedly can start blooming in late December with pure white, single five-petaled flowers. I don’t know where they take those catalog pictures of them blooming in the snow; mine don’t usually bloom until early March. There are so many colors and forms of hellebores, from the dusty pink flowers of H.orientalis, the Lenten rose, to the newer cultivars of peaches, reds, creams, spotted and splashed flowers and doubles with delicate gold edges on the petals that it is hard to make a selection. I want them all! There are also H. foetidis with green flowers and foliage that smells bad when bruised, and H. argutifolius with beautiful silver streaked leaves and chartreuse flowers.
H. Orientalis in spring bloom
H. Orientalis in spring bloom
Most hellebores prefer light shade, are tolerant of even our rocky soil, and fairly drought tolerant too though they will wilt alarmingly during our usual August droughts and scare you into soaking them well. The old leaves can be cut back in February so the flowers show better but I prefer to wait until they finish blooming as I like to see the blooms against the leafy background. New leaves will come up in spring and I cut off the old, ratty leaves then. My big 20 year old h. orientalis usually has close to a hundred flowers and is about 5’ wide, rivaling big hostas for size. Even the flowers are attractive when they go to seed, with their big green pods swelling in the centers of the petals.
They are very prolific, too, casting their hundreds of babies close to their feet where they can be easily dug and transplanted in the spring and shared with friends. Varieties that bloom at the same time can easily cross, and you might find shades from pale cream, lavender, and pink, to dark wine red with spots and splashes of color through the petals, or not. If you don’t want them to reseed, just cut off the flowers as you notice the seed pods begin to swell. It may take the babies three or four years to get big enough to bloom, but they won’t disappoint you. They are pretty low maintenance, and a bonus is that deer and other critters won’t eat them.
I have them scattered all through the woods now, taking care to look down the road to their future size as I don’t want to crowd other plants too much. They are beautiful with daffodils, hostas, ferns and other shade plants, under oak leaf hydrangeas, and glorious in the winter when we crave the sight of something green!