So, how do your evergreen perennials including hellebores look after the early winter blast? Most likely, they look a bit rough if your ground froze like it did here at the garden. Most likely, they’ll be fine once they thaw and we edge closer to spring.
Many plants can’t uptake water in the winter because their roots don’t reach below the frost line. In this case, the plants must reduce their need for water. Water loss in winter is highest when the evergreen foliage is exposed to either sun or wind. Some gardeners cover their evergreen perennials with branches or materials like pine straw to reduce water loss.
The first step taken by most evergreens to reduce water use is to become flaccid (limp). The plants will become turgid again once the temperatures rise above freezing and moisture becomes available. Trillium and hellebores are two good examples.
If wilting isn’t enough to compensate for the water being lost, the plants next begin jettisoning foliage, by sacrificing leaves through dessication until a balance between available moisture and needed moisture is balanced.
Here, most hellebores here aren’t yet in flower, but some of the early flowering Helleborus x ballardiae hybrids were just before bursting.
While most of the Helleborus x hybridus weren’t quite as far along, their foliage still looks rough.
We always recommend removing old hellebore foliage each late winter for a better floral show, but the key is timing. While the foliage looks unsightly to the gardener, it still serves to shade the developing flower buds and slow their progress. If you remove the foliage too early, sun, and the accompanying warmth on the developing buds speed their opening, and if more severe cold is in store, this may ruin the season’s show.
Since this hellebore above is not showing flower color and the buds are…I mean, were, still below the old foliage, we would have left these leaves intact for winter protection…they were only removed for demonstration purposes.
Thank you for this article! I recently read another article suggesting I trim back dying/ unsightly leaves of hellebores, but in zone 6b/7a I know there’s more cold-weather to come and very likely significant snow. With your article I will hold off at least several more weeks. Thanks again!
Thanks for the excellent information. I love learning the correct terms (jettisoning, flaccid, turgid). My helleborus niger has flowers but I am noticing each seems to have a dark hole in it. This time of year I pick them and bring them in the house to enjoy. So far everyone has this problem, I’m wondering if it is a fungus or just a bad year.
Photo? I have had no dark holes on Helleborus niger – Only have two. The one that gets a little more sun came considerably before Christmas, but was still blooming 12/25. The other started right on cue, and still is in full bloom. Both flopped limply during freezes, but have come back upright. The first one now has green petals.
Love this informative article. Thanks Tony!
my old leaves are not protecting the buds in any way….just lying flat away from the crown. Still not remove these?
Great question. The dead leaves also keep the soil from warming too quickly, so you can remove them, but we recommend you replace their shade with a bit of mulch to keep the soil temperatures cool.
Great information. I recently moved to NC from CA and have ordered from you for years. I am so looking forward to the new plantings that will go into my gardens here. I love hellebores and this information will be very helpful. I look forward to your Open Nursery and Garden weekends.
Thanks for the helpful information. Hellebores are miraculous—fragile-looking but strong and lovely in the snow.
I fear I killed mine, not watering enough during this very hot summer! It was such a beautiful plant and I think perhaps I will cut the entire plants brown leaves and shade it to see if I can revive it. I have my doubts!
Many hellebores go summer dormant, so don’t give up without checking the crown.