January Hellebore Ritual

If it’s January, it must be time to…*

Cut the hellebores, Helleborus orientalis, the only species of that genus that likes the conditions here at Casa Fairegarden.

It is a traditional ritual here, with a year taken off in 2010 just to see what would happen, when gardening tasks were trying to be eliminated from the schedule in the ongoing effort to minimize maintenance. Click here to read the post. The above photo, not for the weak of heart, shows the result of not cutting off those old, large leathery leaves. My apologies, it won’t happen again.

Cutting with hand held hedge clippers allows for the fastest cleanup. If executed before the new leaves and emerging flower buds get very tall, there is little loss of bloom. What that means in my garden, not forgetting that all gardening advice is local, local, local, is that now is the time to do the cutting. We wait for an above freezing day without snow cover.

The cuddleduds, smartwool socks, waterproof ski pants, heaviest turtleneck, polarfleece, waterproof jacket, sheepskin trapper hat, wool scarf and felt lined waterproof gloves are donned before going outside. Oh, don’t forget the muck boots. It’s a wonder a person can even move about with all of that gear on, let alone climb the hill, squat down to within an inch or two from the ground and bend over to cut, cut, cut. Who needs a gym membership with these types of chores on the agenda?

The population explosion of hellebores is due to the flinging of seeds by Big Mama, seen above in a 2008 vintage image, which has us now pulling out seedlings by the handfuls, spadefuls and shovelfuls. Note the patches of seedlings playing joyfully at her feet. Many of these were transplanted all over the garden in the early years to help fill up the blank spaces. We no longer do that since these babies have grown to become big mamas as well.

As nice as they are with the mid-winter blooming and weed suppressing evergreen foliage, this is not a monoculture garden. We want to grow some other things as well, so the battle rages on for control and dominance of the slope.

But the hellebores do have a secret weapon in the reproduction cycle.


*Leading off the photos of this post is the winner of the Hellebore Beauty Pageant held in 2011, Pinky. Click here to see all of the contestants. For those awaiting the Annual Viola Beauty Pageant, please stay tuned!


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24 Responses to January Hellebore Ritual

  1. Carol says:

    I still have a few months before I cut back my hellebores, Faire, but I definitely cut them back because, oh, my, that image of them with blooming with old ratty foliage… not good!

    Thanks for stopping by, Carol. Like I said, sort of, the times for me might not be the times for others for doing various gardening chores, but the cutting of the hellebore leaves is definitely one that needs doing whenever the time is right! The experiment to see if not cutting was acceptable was certainly an eye opener. Other chores are left waiting while the hellebores get cut, right on time. There is one more section to chop down here, by the garage, then all is well.

  2. Randy says:


    Most of our foilage still looks good, but already 9 plants have buds growing up. Will have to start cutting soon. A snow crocus opened yesterday, the earliest here ever for crocus.

    That’s the thing, Randy. The foliage still looks fine here, too. But when the flowers are in full bloom, usually in March, those leaves look like….well, the photos spead volumes! Our snow crocus are open on sunny days, too, even did so in December. A first!

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    THe hellebore foliage hasn’t even been hurt here yet this winter. I say yet because we are to have a week or so of freezing coming in. I usually don’t do this little chore until a couple of weeks after you get to it. I am always amazed at the huge clump of yours. I found out this spring that my DB had been pulling the tiny starts under my hellebores thinking they were a winter weed. UGH… Sometimes a person can get a little too much “help” in the garden. ha.. Now that he has been educated maybe my clumps will grow larger. 🙂

    The foliage is in perfect condition here, too, Lisa, but I know what happens to it at blooming time! The one year I didn’t cut was a lesson for me, it won’t happen again. How thoughtful of your DB to help with the weeding! HA Education is key.

  4. Thanks for the tips, Frances. We were unable to grow them in our Zone 5 garden before so I didn’t know you had to cut the hellebores back. But in this new Zone 6 garden, I just might be able to nurse a few through our Canadian winters. This tip will help me along if and when the time comes.

    The secret to overwintering hellebores in colder climates is excellent drainage and cover them with evergreen boughs. You should have no trouble at all in zone 6, Heather. Good luck!

  5. michaele says:

    My patch of hellebores is the one plant I most consistently practice the art of selective seeing on. They have squatters rights in a swath of real estate under an old willow and I pretty much let them do their thing. I have an odd ball variety called “stinking hellebore” (hellebore foitidus) that stands a little taller than the orientalis and I let them all hang out together. I did do a little hellebore leaf tidying in the fall but I was probably dealing with the aged leaves from 2010 that hadn’t yet totally disintegrated
    I noticed the other day that some of their bloom faces are up and smiling so that is what I will focus on.
    Can’t wait to read some of your old posts on the subject. You’re becoming a valuable resource.

    Thanks Micheale, that is what I hope to be, helpful for gardeners. I am unsure if I were not taking photos to post on the blog whether the old leaves would be cut or not on the Hellebores. It does look so nice when they are cut, you can really focus on the flowers and also see what might be going on underneath those leathery leaves. I am interested in the H. foetidus, glad to hear it will grow in this area.

    The H. foetidus is also very generous in the resseding department. It’s foliage is decidely different from the orientalis and is a deeper, darker green. I’d be happy to share multiples if you’re ever in my neck of the woods, (Friendsville, TN). I’m thinking you must have access to my email address through the subscription service if you ever want to touch base. I’m sure I speak for most (probably, all) of your readers….any plant you’d like a sample of, you only have to ask. I feel very fortunate to have come across your blog. You’re a treasure trove of helpful information and beautiful images.

    Thanks for the sweet offer, Michaele, and for explaining in more detail where you live. What a beautiful area that is. I appreciate your offer and perhaps we can meet someday. I am quite private with my email and even more so with my personal address.

    Totally understand…just wanted you to know how valued you are and how pleased any of your readers would be to share their bounty.

    Thank you.

  6. Gail says:

    Frances, With winter on its way here later this week I think the hellebores may take a direct hit! Will complete leaf removal this weekend. Your pageant winner is a keeper for sure. xoxogail

    Thanks Gail. Experience has shown that the Hellebores can take a full on attack of super cold weather after being cut, so I no longer even give that a thought. They are tough!

  7. You really have a magic touch with the Hellebores. Your last three images are especially beautiful and the plants very full. The little bee looks quite happy with them too.

    Thanks Donna. The conditions here seem to be to the liking of H. orientalis. The H. nigers have every one died, some slowly, some immediately. The magic is letting them seed about without adding mulch or scuffing up the soil around them. They take two years of stratification to germinate.

  8. Sheila says:

    Your hellebores are blooming already?! It’s true, hellebores like to seed themselves in. But the seedlings are easy to pull up. I like that about them, because hellebores are so expensive in nurseries. I, too, have transplanted seedlings all over the garden. One time, a potential deck contractor, noticing the number of seedlings under my Big Mama hellebore, offhandedly remarked that he would use Roundup on them. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job. That first hellebore photo is gorgeous!

    Not all the way open, Sheila, those shots are from previous years, but the buds are fully colored and ready to go. My daughter Semi has some open already in her garden just north of us. Roundup on baby hellebores???? Oh, the thought sends chills up my spine! Thanks for the kind words.

  9. Barbara H. says:

    I have yet to get babies but it’s time to go out and take a really good look around the garden between rainfalls he in NE Alabama. It’s been an odd winter with very cold nights but on the whole the days have been bearable. I did notice the daffodils have been sending up leaves, so the plants are a little confused too. I’d love to start getting more hellebores so I can spread their joy around the property. I did learn last year that the white one shows up much better than the dark one when looking through the window. It was a shock because up close I much prefer the dark flower but it opened my mind a little about future purchases. I love it when I get to look at things from a different viewpoint, whether in the garden or elsewhere in life.

    Thanks for visiting and joining in, Barbara. It has been an odd winter, but it seems every winter anymore is odd. Who’s to know what is normal anymore? Light colors do show up better in the long view, foliage as well as flowers. It is nice to have light and dark for contrast.

  10. Dee says:

    Almost time for me too. I dread it, and yet, what would I do without those cheering flowers?

    It seems a daunting task until I get going with it, then it becomes quite enjoyable, the cutting of the Hellebore leaves. It is a rite of passage to blooms.

  11. Rose says:

    Oh, to have shovelfuls of hellebore seedlings to transplant! I can only hope that one day I might have that problem, too. Mine don’t bloom till March or early spring, so I usually don’t get around to cutting back the foliage till then. Actually, last year was the first year I ever did it, thanks to your excellent tips.

    Thanks for stopping by, Rose. Yes, you too can have shovelfuls of Hellebores! Be patient and don’t deadhead or be too neat cleaning up in the fall. Don’t mulch the plants, don’t do anything except cut off the dead leaves before blooming. With only one or two plants, you can easily cut one leaf at a time, being careful not to cut the flower buds. I started out like that.

  12. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Your Hellebores are gorgeous. I’d love to grow them but they take offense to our heat & humidity. I’ll just enjoy your pictures.

    Thanks Cindy. I know how your weather is and don’t blame the Hellebores for taking offense!

  13. Donna B. says:

    Your Hellebores are to spring, what your Muhly grass is to Fall. ♥
    I can never get over that mound, it’s utterly gorgeous. I have an “Ivory Prince” cultivar that was hastily picked up @ a Big Box after I had done some research on Hellebores, and craved them. Bad. Now they’re my favorite flower – but alas I cannot seem to get the current plant to get any bigger! I want seedlings! [this is it’s second winter, maybe I need to look around the plant to see if there are any babies lying about?]
    Maybe just dump one of those shovelfulls into a box, fedEX it my way? hee hee! It’d be much appreciated!

    Thanks, Donna! Ivory Prince is not an orientalis, sad to say. Mine died and doing research I found it is a hybrid of types of hellebores that do not like our acid conditions and hot summers. Look for orientalis, those are the ones that self sow, for me anyway. Good luck!

  14. commonweeder says:

    I must get some hellebores!

    You must! HA

  15. My family has grown hellbores, or Christmas Roses was we called them, for the past 25 years or so, but I have never seen the Big Momma variety. Oh my goodness!! It’s beautiful. 🙂 I’m getting started with my great grandmother’s garden this spring, and I can’t wait to see what hellbores, and other plants surprise me with their presence this year!

    Thanks Emily. The Christmas rose is H. niger, not to be confused with the Lenten rose, H. orientalis, the type I grow. How wonderful for you to be tending your grandmother’s patch! Good luck with your discoveries!

  16. gittan says:

    Hi Frances! Do you cut them of even if they are still green? I can´t remeber how I did last year… and this year with the long fall we still have =) they are all still green. Do I even need to cut them back then? They have no buds showing yeat but I bought a few new once that I keep inside the house and the bloom like crazy =D I´ll put them in the garden when spring finaly arrives. Take care / kram gittan

    Hi Gittan, I am so happy you have some Hellebores! If they are H. orientalis, you can cut the leaves back when you first begin to see the round flower buds showing down in the center of the plant. The leaves here were still quite green and nice since the winter has been mild, so far. I cut them anyway. I know what happens to those green leaves when it is peak blooming season in March, the photo tells the story. If you are keeping them indoors, I see no reason to cut the leaves, however.
    Kram, my friend, double kram.

  17. Jean says:

    They look so pretty. I wonder if I’ll ever have such trouble with mine? I just planted them last year. They’re still in bounds and delightful.

    Thanks Jean. It is only trouble for me because there are a kajillion of them. Still not complaining about it, anything that blooms in winter is a blessing.

  18. What a great stand of Hellebores. Mine are still small and not very noticeable. I do have a few buds. Hope mine explode like yours!!

    Thanks Janet. It took several years for the babies to even show up. That is when I began spreading them around, then it took several more years for them to reaching blooming size. Patience will be rewarded!

  19. They are so pretty! You really do have such a “green thumb! Always so much fun to check out your posts!!

    Thanks Alicia, those are kind words. I do work quite hard out in the garden, nearly every day whenever possible. That might explain my dirty thumbs! HA

  20. Hi there. Love the photos. It is interesting that the hellebores are all named hybrids. Here in the UK we tend to have collections of hybrids such as Ashbourne Hybrids and perhaps just an indication of colour, so we usually buy them in flower. The best UK hellebore breeder has his nursery not far from us so we are going to try to get to his open day in Feb.
    i promised to tell you when i posted my blog on the gardens of Tom Stuart-Smith – i did so yesterday, “Some of the Gardens of Tom Stuart-Smith. Hope yopu enjoy it.

    Thanks, Green Bench. Funny, none of my hellebores have names, I just make them up! But we do have a couple of Ladies, Blue and Red, that were gifts. I will check out your post as soon as time allows!

  21. Oh hellebores I could eat you.


  22. Pearl says:

    Your Hellebores are gorgeous!! I planted a few several years ago and they just won’t take off like I was hoping.
    Do you cut the whole plant back? I just get rid of the outer stems that look bad. I wonder if they would do better if I cut them all back?

    Thanks Pearl. It took several years for even the first babies to show up here, and several more years before those transplanted babies were blooming size. I cut all the leaves off.

  23. Catherine says:

    I dug and divided my biggest hellebores a couple of years ago, they were really taking over. I also used to transplant the seedlings, but am running out of room. We’re not quite ready to cut them back yet, the buds are just coming up on them. I love their faces even though they are a lot of work to get pictures of.

    Hi Catherine, thanks for joining in here. I like to cut the foliage before the buds have gotten higher. We have so many plants, hundreds if not thousands that the cutting has to be done with hedge clippers, not one leaf at a time. I still have cut some buds off, but not many. You are so right about getting low to take the photos, even with mine on a steep slope. Good thing I like to get down in the garden. HA

  24. cheryl says:

    My my my Frances, just what I needed to see up here in the great white north. They are beautiful! I’ve always admired them but rarely saw them growing around here until lately. Finally found a pretty pink one or so the tag said and now it’s sleeping under snow and leaves. I can’t wait to see what spring will bring. As always your care guide is so refreshing and full of knowledge. Thank you !

    Thanks to you, Cheryl, for those kind words. It makes me happy to hear you can enjoy hellebores up north, whatever color it turns out to be. I find the color to be unimportant, actually, they are all gorgeous and so welcome for the time of bloom. Good luck with yours!

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