Hellebore

Here in the Northwest, spring fever lasts for months. Giddy days with a high temp are followed by days of taking to our houses.

Neglected, my garden looks under-the-weather, so the other day I cut back stalks of foxglove and dried-up bushes of herbs. Spring is lengthy, but winter quiescence for herbaceous plants is brief, and cutting back crocosmia slimed by November’s frost, two-inch blades of new green stand ready. Tightly furled newborns of columbine and sedum hug the earth. To plant the primroses, I took the Christmas fir branches off the window boxes – breaking up last years roots, happy to smell dirt.

In a bed by the front step, tiny magenta cyclamen bloomed all January, but I can’t pick them. Wanting to bring flowers indoors I found one beautiful hepatica, starry-shaped, stalwart, such a blue, a couple of tiny fern fronds, one pansy and one last year primrose, both with slug bites – and hellebore.

Hellebore – improbable beauty – they bloom so willingly and early that one variety can be called the Christmas rose. They seem an old fashioned delicate flower – and terrifically tough.

One year before we lived here and had to cancel a winter trip further south, as a consolation I bought nine hellebore from the Heronswood Hellebore Open. Heronswood is gone, but the hellebore still console. Since deer don’t eat them (another strong point), I should move them out of the courtyard.

But shoulds aside, I like having them close by in wintry weather. The hellebore tip their heads and protect their faces from rain. They cheer a quick trip to the Buffalo. (A four-year old visitor melded what she called bison that she saw on her drive north, with bungalow her mother’s word for the guesthouse, into Buffalo. And it stuck.)

A hard freeze will flatten hellebore into a faint – long stems, blossoms, and leaves collapse on the ground – but they revive as the day warms. In summer their big leathery leaves stay a healthy green, and only now, as the new blossoms come on, do they look sickly. Trimming them back sets the blossom clusters off – pale pink, acid green, burgundy.

I used to be disappointed, when I brought them into the house, by their immediate swoon over the side of a vase. But last year in “The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores,” I read the expert Margery Fish’s advice to simply slit the stems of cut hellebore all the way to first leaves. Now hellebore in tiny Turkish glasses stay vigorous for days.