I cannot predict which future years will have autumn weather lasting into December. I can predict that the final months of 2016 won’t be the last time we’ll experience mild days just three weeks before Christmas. We citizens of the northeast may have adjusted to wide-swinging seasonal fluctuations, but I believe that most gardeners have not learned to take advantage of the New November.
Where are the Hellebores?
If there is one best perennial that stays green and attractive all winter it’s the hellebore (Helleborus X hybridus, H. foetidus or H. niger). You may have first heard of one as a Lenten rose or Christmas rose. You may even have an ancient one in your garden, as I do — a pass-along gift from my mom’s friend, Peg Thompson. The plant must be 80 years old, which is not unusual for this deer-proof, slug-proof, shade-loving, extremely hardy and tolerant perennial. It’s a satisfying plant for beginners and we would all be smart to choose and use them more.
Hellebores are prized for two features: They flower in winter, as suggested by Lenten or Christmas in the common name. Depending upon where you live, and which species or cultivar you have, the plants will bloom anytime from December through April. Sometimes the drying flowers remain attractive long after that. The colors are typically pale green, pink, mauve or cream, although hybridizers are playing with them to provide bolder colors, some double flowers, as well as foliage and flower patterns. These are not show-stopping flowers. Traditionally they have been white or subtle pastels and faced downward, sometimes hidden by the leaves. My first perennial teacher from Cornell suggested placing them on a wall above a sidewalk, so you could look up at them. Some newer hybrids now have flowers that face upward.
The foliage is the second and best reason to use more hellebores in a garden, especially one that’s seen in winter. The leaves stay deep green, with interesting shapes or texture. They are leathery and do not get mushy under the snow. Anytime in spring you can cut back any that have brown edges or broken stems, and you will be delighted to see the flower buds already forming under there.
With all these benefits, why doesn’t everyone grow lots of hellebores? It’s about supply and the timing to buy them. Most people buy plants when they see the flowers. Since these plants mostly flower in February and March you may not see them in your garden center or nursery even if it is open. In the gardening months most perennial departments carry some hellebores, but people don’t jump to buy them based on foliage alone, unless the sales staff takes time to recommend the plants. The garden and landscape show produced by Plant WNY (March 23-26) is a good place to see many hellebores. They are flowering and you can buy them - but then what? Don’t be deterred, I say: You can’t store them outside immediately because they have been living in greenhouse conditions, and you can’t plant them until the ground softens. But you can keep them growing until then in the bright but coolest room in your house, or on a porch that stays above freezing. Just make any changes gradually. This works.
A winter foliage garden
Sometime I would like to plant a perennial bed specifically for winter foliage. People who live in less snowy areas certainly do this but we can acquire the skill for a great look in late fall, early spring, and for winter weeks when the snow recedes (or doesn’t arrive). Right now my own beds have several perennials still looking great in many shades of green as well as gray, wine or gold tones, and a variety of heights and textures. As I write this on Nov. 28 I have been running out to the garden to check my late beauties, and find them scattered among other perennials that have turned brown, some cut back and some left standing. But imagine the following planted together as a lovely winter mosaic:
Asarum (Ginger): This low-growing groundcover is beautiful all year, whether glossy-leaved European ginger or the native (sometimes called Canadian) one with its interesting leaf pattern.
Amsonia (either tabernaemontana or hubrechtii--sometimes called Arkansas bluestar): The early summer blue flowers are a minor matter. Grow it for the late season, fine foliage that turns bright gold in September; about 2.5 feet tall.
Bergenia (any cultivar): Its large, leathery leaves turn shades of burgundy, and some even deep pink. It’s a wonderful, slow-growing groundcover less than 10 inches tall (dramatic hot pink flower spikes in spring).
Epimedium (many kinds): Usually sold as short groundcovers, these have delicate flowers in spring. But plant them for the leaf textures and patterns, and the apple green to gold colors.
Geranium: Perennial geraniums spread — some gracefully, some rampantly - and most have wonderfully textured foliage that turns wine or bronze colored in fall. (These are not the annual geraniums in garden centers; those are Pelargoniums.) Choose carefully for the habit and behavior you desire, for the many small pink, purple or blue flowers, and do remember the winter benefits.
Helleborus (Lenten or Christmas rose): As described earlier, for bold green leaves all season and late winter flowers, there is every reason to plant them.
Heuchera (Coral bells): Hundreds of cultivars offer countless color and leaf patterns. They continue to hold their colors through many snowfalls. They require light soil with good drainage, and prefer partial sun or light shade. Hummingbirds love the spring flowers. The foliage plants make a great front edge to a border (about 9 inches tall).
Stachys byzantina (Lambs’ ears): Always silver and fuzzy, you can choose among cultivars with several heights, with or without summer flowers. They are distinctive ground-covers or front edge plants, even in winter.
This article focused on perennials, but we cannot forget other kinds of plants with gorgeous features in late fall and winter: ornamental grasses, evergreens, and deciduous trees with great bark, twigs or silhouettes. Let’s go outside and do some looking.
Sally Cunningham is garden writer, lecturer and consultant.