Hellebores are excellent shade perennials for almost any garden. They have pretty glossy leaves and never overgrow their area or get in the way. Plus, they’re evergreen. And when there are slim pickings in late winter for foliage and color, hellebores reliably bloom in February, March, and April. How cool is that?
The most common types are Helleborus orientalis, helleborus niger, Helleborus x hybridus. They like shade and are hardy to Zone 5. Unlike some other perennials, hellebores don’t flop or trail or put on uneven new growth. They just expand in a loose mound, getting slightly wider and not much taller each year. While hostas and brunneras are also attractive for their foliage, hellebores can’t be beat for graceful structure, evergreen foliage, and long-lasting flowers.
Here are some fun facts you may not know about hellebores.
Lenten Roses That Aren’t Roses
- The colored “petals,” are actually sepals, little protective wrappers for the flowers inside.
- They’re easy to transplant. If you don’t like where yours is, you can easily lift the clump out of the ground and move it.
- Flowers can last up to three months. Have you experienced this? If you own a hellebore, you probably have.
- They’re poisonous so deer and other critters will avoid them.
- Your impulse to cut away the blighted or brown stalks as new growth emerges is the right way to trim them.
- The highest concentration of hellebores occurs in Bulgaria and the Balkan countries.
- Their flowers will never look up at you. They nod down. Like fuchsias, they’re stubborn like that. Still worth it.
- They bloom during Lent, hence the common name of Lenten Rose.
If you’re new to growing hellebores, I suggest trying any of the Helleborus orientalis hybrids. They’re kind of common but they’re tough and virtually care free (outside of annual, late winter trimming). For beginner gardeners, I don’t recommend Helleborus foetidus or argutifolius. These grow on stalks and can look odd, perhaps even homely, to a newbie gardener. Plus, the leaves are often a matte tone and toothed, making for a scratchy experience if you brush up against them.
I don’t know how hellebores push themselves up through the darkness and cold weather to bloom so early and elegantly every late winter, but I’m certainly grateful they do. And regardless of which kind you plant, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you walk out the door and see flowers in the garden.
If you’re looking for an exotic tree that offers unusual foliage but is easy to grow, try an azara in your garden. This native of South America has tiny glossy leaves, a tidy upright habit, and super cute pompom flowers. It requires little to no pruning and stays evergreen for those down to zone 7. At its tallest, it’s 15-20 feet and maybe 6 feet wide. I grow three azaras in my yard and I adore them. They all offer unique gifts.
The straight species of azara microphylla or Box-Leaf Azara is a dark green wonder. Its vertical branches grow straight up, not very sideways, and its rich color poses a brilliant contrast to my purple smokebush. It could also contrast well with a blue juniper or variegated euonymous or eleagnus. In late winter, the flowers pop out in round yellow fuzzies that smell sweet. In the rain, the miniscule leaves are glossy and deeply colored. I grow mine in full sun but in a bed that gets cold winter shade, which lowers the zone from 8 to 7. Still, it does just fine.
I love love love this azara (azara microphylla ‘Variegata.’) It’s got the same tiny leaves but they’re green and creamy yellow, making for a pretty, delicate pattern. This form is more splayed with a vertical structure and large fans branching out at angles. I’ve paired it with a contorted filbert whose curly branches and purple leaves create a stunning contrast. I grow this azara near my living room window so I can enjoy it from indoors in winter. It offers graceful privacy there, so much that I’ve never hung a curtain. It is slightly more tender, hardy down to zone 8, but with it near the house and exposed to the west, mine has always survived the occasional snow and frigid temps nicely.
Andean Gold, Saw-toothed Azara
The Andean Gold azara (azara serrata) is a relatively new introduction (see top photo for blooms) and it’s already thriving in my garden. Plant explorer Dan Hinkley brought this fast-growing tree back from Chile and arguably it feels the most exotic of all the azaras. While it still sports smallish leaves, they are serrated, which adds extra interest. Also, the pompom flowers are larger, deeper yellow, and wildly fragrant. I grow this one along my fence to screen out my neighbor’s window. Though it’s the widest of the three azaras, perhaps even rangy, it still grows in almost a flat oval, behaving in the tighter driveway bed while offering a lovely evergreen backdrop.
The drawback to azaras is they aren’t inexpensive and are sometimes hard to find, though recently I’ve seen the straight species offered more and more in nurseries. If you find one, even a small one, get it. They grow discreetly but quickly. And I haven’t met anyone whose ever regretting planting one, including me.
Leucothoe shrubs (pronounced “Lew-kohth-oh-wey”) are wonderful plants that offer evergreen structure and pretty color to a garden all year. They have a mounding form with branches that shoot from the base before drooping for a lovely shaggy structure. With insignificant flowers, these blueberry relatives instead feature easy-care maintenance and stunning foliage. All cultivars like part or dappled shade. They do have weird common names like “dog hobble” and “black laurel” and “fetterbush,” so I prefer their botanical name “Leucothoe.” Here are several cultivars I recommend that most gardeners in the U.S. can grow.
Leucothoe axillaris ‘Rejoyce’
This new cultivar has hot-red emerging foliage and then deep maroon older foliage with a lovely satiny surface that absorbs light and creates a dreamy haunting mood. It likes part or dappled shade and grows in a mound shape, topping off at three feet wide by three feet tall. Hardy down to zone 6.
Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’
This leucothoe is an oldie but a goodie, sporting red stems and buds, green-yellow marbled leaves, and deep maroon edging. It grows densely in a tall drooping mound. It likes to flourish under trees in dappled light. ‘Rainbow’ can grow to an immense size at five feet wide and tall, but it’s worth it. Hardy to zone 5. Incredibly striking.
Leucothoe axillaris ‘Coast’
I’ve noticed Coast Leucothoes have a darker green tone than their counterparts. Reddish color spreads through leaves in winter. What’s unusual about the Coast Leucothoe is the teeny bell-like flowers grow in clumps instead in a pattern along the stems, almost like a pieris. It tops out at five feet and is hardy to zone 5. If you want a deep-green curtain of foliage, this is the choice.
Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Zeblid’
This leucothoe’s common name is Scarletta Fetterbush so you may see it labeled as such. It’s an alluring introduction with a scattering of deep red leaves that all mostly turn purple in autumn. Scarletta is also a lower growing shrub, topping out at two by two feet wide and tall. It’s also hardy down to Zone 5 but if I were growing it in the upper midwest, I’d plant it in dappled shade under a tree just to ensure extra frost protection. Very pretty in winter.
Skimmia japonica is a lovely broadleaf evergreen shrub — except when your dog goes the bathroom on it. Then it turns into this, a yellowed sad skeleton. It used to be stately and lush, a perfect plant for deep shade, but that all changed.
A Pretty Green Scheme
I planted this skimmia in an effort to contrast with the variegated dogwood growing behind it. For years it worked perfectly. The deep green leaves of the broadleaf evergreen mounded horizontally against the upward vase shape of the light-colored dogwood. But then last winter, my dog made it his pee post and by this spring, it had perished.
Gardening with dogs can be frustrating. I’ve had to protect my beds with ticky tack fencing. But when I want to weed or even step into the garden, I have to wrestle with the lightweight fencing, which often flops over and is hard for one person to set upright in the ground. And so I left the skimmia unprotected. He didn’t bother with it for years and I had assumed he never would. But I was wrong.
This isn’t the first plant I’ve lost to dog urine. I’ve lost a beautiful purple-leafed loropetalum, an expensive and unique kalmia, a huge-leafed rhododendron (sinogrande). And those are only the highlights. There’s also arbutus, magnolia, lavender. Even my young loquat suffered. It can be depressing.
Anyway, the above picture, courtesy of the Oregon State University Plant Database, shows what a healthy skimmia looks like. They grow from about four feet wide to four feet tall and are hardy to zone 6. They keep their dark leaves all year round and the flowers are fragrant. The berries are poisonous but carmine red and lovely. This is a great choice if you have deep shade and don’t know what to plant. Just don’t let the dogs near it!