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Hellebores: Beautiful Flowers of Late Winter and Spring

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

The Beauty of Spring Flowers

Spring is by far my favorite time of year. The appearance of new leaves and flowers is always exciting. The spirit of renewal is strong and seems to accelerate as April approaches. One of the joys of late winter and spring is the sight of hellebore flowers in gardens and landscaped areas.

Where I live, the winter landscape is dominated by muted colors, especially dull green, very pale yellow, and shades of brown and grey. The scene is sometimes quite bleak, especially when it rains. I often feel that color has been drained from the landscape. Thankfully, the first signs of spring appear early in the year. In addition, some cultivated plants bloom in winter. The appearance of hellebore flowers indicates that the intense activities of spring will soon begin.

Hellebores belong to the genus Helleborus. The genus name is said to have originated from two Ancient Greek words: helein or elein, which mean "to injure", and bora, which means "food". Many hellebores are poisonous when eaten.

Hellebore Facts

Hellebores belong to the buttercup family, or the Ranunculaceae. The plants are native to Europe and Asia. They're loved for their ability to flower in winter and early spring and their often large and sometimes colorful blossoms. Hellebores are perennials, which means that the underground parts of the plant survive from one year to the next. Some species are evergreen.

Though some hellebores have white, pale yellow, or pale green blossoms, others have rich colors. One example is the Lenten rose, or Helleborus orientalis. The plant has a lovely name, although it isn't a member of the rose family. Its flowers vary in color but are often pink to purple. The petals (which are really sepals) may be spotted. The term "Lenten rose" is also used for a plant named Helleborus x hybridus and sometimes for other species of Helleborus as well. The word Lenten in the plant's name is derived from Lent, a special period leading up to Easter in the Christian liturgical calendar.

Two flowers have raised their heads to show their reproductive structures.

Two flowers have raised their heads to show their reproductive structures.

Fifteen to twenty species of hellebores exist. The number depends on the differing points of view of researchers. Some species contain multiple varieties, and breeders have created hybrids between different species. This has created a wide range of appearances in hellebore flowers and sometimes makes identification beyond the genus level difficult. A single species may contain flowers of different colors.

Plant Features

A hellebore flower appears to have five petals, but as mentioned above these structures are actually sepals. Inside the sepals is a ring of highly modified petals. They look like little cups and are known as nectaries because they hold nectar. They show up well in the photo of the Lenten rose located at the start of this article. The flowers attract insect pollinators. Even during the early part of the year in my part of the world, a few insects are active. Some bumble bees are active even on cold days.

The male reproductive structures (the stamens) and the female ones (the carpels) are located in the center of the flower. In many hellebore species, the flower is cup-shaped and is nodding, or bent downwards. The flower has to be lifted in order for someone to see the inner parts.

Hellebore leaves are palmately compound. They consist of leaflets whose petioles arise from the same point on the leaf stem. The leaves are often leathery and glossy and have a toothed margin.

Hellebores are apparently quite easy to grow. I enjoying seeing them near my home, but I don't grow them myself. They are said to prefer moist but well-drained soil and a semi-shaded environment. Plant breeders have created some interesting cultivars. Some have multiple rows of sepals and are known as double-flowered hellebores. A few cultivars have a deep purple-black color.

Acaulescent and Caulescent Plants

There are two main types of hellebores—acaulescent and caulescent. In acaulescent (or stemless) hellebores, flower stalks and leaves emerge from the ground separately from one another. They are produced by a subterranean rhizome. A rhizome is a modified stem that grows underground and produces shoots. The flower stalks of acaulescent hellebores may bear bracts, but these aren't classified as leaves. The Christmas rose and many other types of hellebores are acaulescent.

In caulescent (or stemmed) hellebores, a stem bearing leaves as well as a group of flowers at the top is produced. Several of these multipurpose stems may appear. The caulescent group is smaller than the acaulescent one. Some hybrids and cultivars have features of both acaulescent and caulescent hellebores.

The interior of nodding flowers may be easier to view if the flowers are placed in a raised bed or on a slope. Plant breeders are creating flatter flowers that face forward, allowing observers to appreciate the full beauty of the blooms.

Poisonous Hellebores

Many and perhaps all hellebores are poisonous for humans or animals. The plants contain a variety of toxins that may be concentrated enough to hurt us. They also contain chemicals that act as skin irritants. It's advisable to wear gloves when handling the plants.

Though there is some uncertainty about the identity and nature of the toxins in hellebores, there is no doubt that they are dangerous. In the Middle Ages and in even earlier times, however, the plants were used by herbalists. They administered plant material to patients in an attempt to treat certain medical problems.

At least some species of hellebores contain chemicals called cardiac glycosides, which alter the heartbeat. Like buttercups, hellebores also contain protoanemonin. This chemical is produced from a substance called ranunculin when the plants are wounded. Protoanemonin irritates the skin and can cause a rash and blisters. It also irritates the digestive tract. Ingestion of the chemical can produce a burning sensation in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, and gastrointestinal inflammation, depending on the concentration.

Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in a mountainous area

Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in a mountainous area

The entire Christmas rose-plant is toxic. Out of all the organs particularly the rhizome contains ill-defined compounds. The powerful toxins present are not destroyed in drying or storage. Both animals and humans are affected.

— Cornell University

Christmas Roses

Hellebores are interesting plants. The notability of a plant is a personal matter, but I find certain types of hellebores especially attractive or interesting. One of these is the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger). Its flower is generally white in color, although pink cultivars have been created. Even the white flowers often develop a pink tinge as they age. They may eventually become green. Hellebore blooms last for a long time, but they often change color as they age. Many become green in old age.

The Christmas rose flowers in winter. It may bloom during the Christmas season. Depending on the plant variety and the environmental conditions, however, it may not produce flowers until January or even later. I think the color contrast between the sunny center and white sepals in the flowers shown above is lovely. Although the Christmas rose is cultivated, it grows in the wild in mountainous areas of Europe.

Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore)

Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore)

Stinking and Green Hellebores

Stinking and green hellebores may not be thought of as the most beautiful members of their genus, but I think they are interesting plants. They have some unusual features.

The stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) grows wild in Britain and Europe. The "stinking" attribute applies to the crushed leaves. I've never smelled the odor, but I've read reports saying that it's not as bad as it sounds. The plant is also known as dungwort and bear's foot. The latter name comes from the shape of the leaves. The flowers are drooping, bell-shaped, and pale green. They are sometimes edged with red, as shown in the photo above. The leaves are much darker than the flowers.

The green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) is also native to Britain and Europe. It's an unusual plant because the petal-like sepals of the flower have a rich color that may be almost the same shade of green as the leaves. The plant has been introduced to North America and grows in the wild in some places on the continent.

Helleborus viridis (the green hellebore)

Helleborus viridis (the green hellebore)

Lovely Flowers of Late Winter and Spring

It's wonderful to discover plants that bloom in winter. I especially appreciate the ones that bloom outdoors in late winter because the appearance of their flowers tells me that spring is not far away. The landscaped area on the grounds of a golf course near my home has some lovely hellebores as well as an attractive selection of other flowers. I enjoy observing and photographing the plants.

The wide variety of hellebore plants in nurseries is enticing. The plants can be grown both indoors and outdoors, depending on the cultivar and the environment. It's important to remember that they are poisonous, especially if there are children or pets in the family. If precautions are taken, a hellebore can be a lovely addition to a garden or home.

References

© 2018 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 19, 2018:

Thank you very much, Ann. I like the Christmas rose, too. It's a lovely sight, especially at the time of year when it blooms.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 19, 2018:

This is a beautiful, informative hub, Linda. I love the Christmas Rose but don't have any in my new garden. I need to find a space for some.

Great detail here and an enjoyable read.

Ann

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2018:

Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Dianna. I appreciate it very much.

Dianna Mendez on April 14, 2018:

I have yet to see a hellebore. What a lovely flower! Always a joy to view your lovely photos and to learn from your writings.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 11, 2018:

Thank you so much, Larry!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 11, 2018:

Wonderful read!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 05, 2018:

Thanks, Heidi. I'm very careful about plants that I put in my garden and in my home because we have dogs and cats. I love observing potentially harmful plants in other places, though.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 05, 2018:

Beautiful pics of this plant! I've known they do come with some cautions. So I've avoided them in our garden since our dogs eat everything. Thanks for sharing the info and pics!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2018:

I hope you're having a nice spring where you live, Louise. I think it's a lovely time of year.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2018:

Hi, Manatita. I think the name "Christmas Rose" is beautiful, too. Thank you for the visit.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 02, 2018:

Spring is my favourite season. I do love the flowers you posted, they're so pretty.

manatita44 from london on April 02, 2018:

Lots of info on Hellebores. Good to learn about the male and female part of it and also the different types. I prefer the Christmas Rose, if only for the sweetness in the name. A toxic but beautiful flower.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2018:

Hi, Bede. Happy Easter to you, too! Thank you very much for the comment. The weather doesn't sound very pleasant where you live. There's mixed sun and cloud where I live without a patch of snow in sight. I hope spring arrives soon for you.

Bede from Minnesota on April 01, 2018:

Hi Linda- a happy Easter to you! It was 9° this morning here where I live and still plenty of snow. Seeing these beautiful flowers has given me hope…that winter will eventually end! The hellebores may be harmful to the body, but very helpful for the soul; I hope to plant some if it ever becomes warm.

Also, I thank you for explaining things clearly and not assuming that your readers know everything. It is helpful, for instance, to have the different parts of the flower explained.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2018:

Hi, Chitrangada. I appreciate your visit. Green flowers are definitely interesting! There are lots of surprises in the plant world.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 01, 2018:

Happy Easter, Devika! Good luck with your garden. I hope you find some beautiful flowers.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on April 01, 2018:

Interesting and informative article about these wonderful flowers!

I am not familiar with these flowers. May be they don’t grow in this part of the World. The green one is unique indeed. I have never seen a green flower.

Thanks for sharing this excellent and well presented article, with lovely pictures!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 01, 2018:

Happy Easter to you! Beautiful flowers and unique too. Spring is here and I have planned a different garden this season. Flowers add suc natural beauty to our gardens.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Thank you, Flourish. I always appreciate seeing a flower in a drab area in spring. I think it's a lovely symbol of renewal and hope. Have a great Easter!

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 31, 2018:

What beautiful flowers, particularly against a drab winter backdrop. That green one was especially different as you don’t see too many green flowers. Have a wonderful Easter weekend!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Thanks, Peggy. I hope you have a lovely Easter celebration.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 31, 2018:

I was not familiar with hellebores so thanks for the education regarding them. Wishing you a Happy Easter and lovely Spring.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Thank you, Bill. Happy Easter to you as well!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 31, 2018:

I've experimented growing a lot of flowers but never this one. Thanks for the inspiration, Linda, and Happy Easter to you!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Hi, Mary. I'm glad I live on the west coast of Canada. I like the early spring! Winter can be fun, but it's not my favourite season.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Hi, Kristen. I think the flowers are beautiful, too. I love their different colours and appearances.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Thanks for the comment, Jackie. Hellebores are one of my favourite flowers, too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Hi, Bill. Thanks for the visit. I expect there are hellebores in New England, at least in a cultivated form. They are popular plants.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 31, 2018:

I love flowers and hellebores are not familiar to me but because of the pictures, I now recognize some of them. When we left the Uk early March the spring flowers were out but when we arrived in Toronto, spring is yet to come.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on March 31, 2018:

Linda, this was a real interesting hub about those flowers. They're so beautiful and deadly at the same time. I would love to have a potted one to grow at my home and place it on my patio. Thanks for sharing this hub.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on March 31, 2018:

I am very familiar with this flower and have had my hands all in them, so really thankful for your warnings! I love the Christmas one and I think it is called that because it blooms right up til Christmas. Here in the south anyway.

Great info covering one of my favorite flowers!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on March 31, 2018:

Hi Linda. I was not familiar with hellebore flowers. Thank you for the education. I am wondering if this species might be found here in New England. Would love to see a flower that blooms in late winter, a sure sign that spring is on its way.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Hi, John. I appreciate your visit and comment. I think that the plants are interesting. The fact that they are poisonous could be a problem in some situations, though. I love the fact that they bloom so early in the year.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 31, 2018:

This was a very interesting and informative article about a flower I have not had much experience with, Linda. Any plant that flowers in Winter is a welcome addition to the garden, however the fact that most are poisonous causes some concern. Thank you for sharing..great photos too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 31, 2018:

Thank you very much, Nikki. I hope you have a happy Easter, too!

Nikki Khan from London on March 31, 2018:

Wonderful insight and information on Helleborus flowers, loved to read it as I love nature and flowers.These beautiful flowers are dangerous for us and for animals, that bit was scary :)

A great read Linda, thanks for sharing dear.

A very happy Easter to you!