By any gardener's standards, this has been a rough winter.
So far, it's not been that pleasant of a spring either. Except for a few days here and there, temperatures have been colder than normal and even as we move into April, snow has threatened our forecast.
But readers, don't turn to this column for a weather report and you're not going to get one now. Instead, I'm going to tell you what is growing, even in the coldest of springs we've had in a long time. In my garden, it is Hellebores.
For the longest time, I didn't grow these amazing plants and now that I do, I have only two regrets; first, that I didn't start growing them sooner, and second, that I never seem to have enough in my garden. On a recent Saturday when temperatures did manage to move higher than 40 degrees and I was anxious to get outside, the first place I went was where the Hellebores grow.
From the genus Helleborus, these perennial plants are among the early bloomers of spring. They are members of the Ranunculaceae family of plants, also known as the buttercup family. This means Hellebores are cousins to delphiniums, clematis and aconite.
Backyard gardeners may know Hellebores by the names Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose. They are often evergreen, although by this time last year's leaves are looking pretty bad. In late winter and early spring, the plant sends up new growth along with flower buds that can often be seen growing through a late snowfall.
When I see this new growth, I cut off the old leaf stalks and toss them onto the compost heap. The plant looks refreshed and new again and I've accomplished something while it's still too early for much else.
Hellebores are tough. They can bloom as early as December in some areas, although in my garden I enjoy them beginning in March and sometimes well into June.
In the past 15 years or so, these plants have gotten more and more popular. In 2005, they were named the plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association, and although many backyard gardeners still haven't grown them, they've been around for centuries and were once used medicinally. As a useful plant, Hellebores are listed in herbal publications and this is where I learned of it. I grow herbs for culinary or ornamental use, so I wasn't interested in its healing properties, but as an ornamental it continues to fascinate me every year when I see new flower buds emerge.
They are so easy to grow, it's no wonder they aren't wildflowers. In some areas of Europe, they are, but not here; not yet. They are drought tolerant and don't mind growing in shade. Mine do best when planted where they gets filtered sunlight through the trees. They are most often sold as shade plants, but they don't mind the sunlight. It's the cooler weather they prefer for blooming. Throughout the hottest summer days, they stop blooming but still maintain their green leaves, unlike Dicentra (bleeding heart) that dies back to the ground when summer turns on the heat.
Because of their newfound popularity, cultivators are growing lots of new species. Helleborus foetidus, also called ''stinking hellebore,'' although it doesn't stink at all, has wonderful cultivars with names like, 'Frenchy,' 'Miss Jekyll,' and 'Silvertooth.' Helleborus argutifolius, also known as Corsican hellebore, has cultivars named 'Silver Lace' and has a more toothy leaf with spines that can pinch. The common Christmas Rose and Lenten Rose are not related to roses at all, but are Helleborus orientalis species.
Don't let another spring go by without adding several of these plants to your garden. Their early blooms give hope that there are some pretty great happenings coming soon.