Hellebore: Friend or Foe?

Hellebores face the ground, turn one over to enjoy. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

Recently Lise wrote an article describing invasive exotic plants that caused me to ponder over plants we consider invasive and those we do not. Obviously, kudzu is an invasive exotic plant but what about Helleborus x hybridus?

About 25 years ago, I bought my first Helleborus orientalis as it was called then. It was only later, when there were so many hybrids out there that botanists switched their name to H. x hybridus. In the 1990s, they were delightful, albeit expensive, plants.

When the first young seedlings appeared, a process that takes two years, I was flattered, feeling that they reflected my skills as a gardener. Little did I realize that these hellebores, far from their Balkan home, relished North Carolina regardless of whether we gave them sun or shade, clay or sandy soil.

It was in the early 2000s that I began to think in my mind that these had the potential to be invasive. Each flower sent out a multitude of seeds. What once consisted of individual plants turned into a sea of hellebores. The problem was that by the time the seedlings appeared on the horizon, they were already deep-rooted. I hand pulled, all to no avail. The only solution was to dig them out, a laborious process considering how many there were.

Now hellebores have a lot going for them. They bloom at a time when we’re emerging from a dreary winter and, being poisonous, deer leave them alone. The seeds are heavy so they aren’t blown all over the garden. Instead, the seedlings cluster around their parent(s).

We hear a lot about invasive exotic plants — and a lot of plants shouldn’t be in our garden centers. The question here is this: Are the hybrid hellebores invasive enough to be banned? Or do their merits outweigh their demerits?

Now there are some other choices in the hellebore family besides H. x hybridus. H. feotidus, aka Stinking Hellebore, also is seedy, but unlike H. x hybridus, the offspring are shallow-rooted and very easy to hand pull. I’m a big fan of this particular hellebore and enjoy its chartreuse flowers.

The Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius, is reputedly sterile, has cream-colored blooms, but has never performed well for me. I suspect it misses its Mediterranean climate. H. niger that blooms in late December has lovely blossoms that face up to the sky but is far more difficult to grow here than the hybrids; it’s also not nearly as seedy as the hybrids.

So, should hellebores qualify as being invasive exotic plants? They certainly are exotic in that they are non-native to North America. To my mind, H. x hybridus qualifies as invasive, as it’s exceptionally seedy, crowding other plants out. This is one plant that should never be planted near a stream where the water can spread its seeds in different directions.

Do its charms outweigh its nuisance values? I personally feel that these hellebores take more work to contain than they’re worth. To prevent new seedlings, I cut off the flowers in their prime. I find digging them up is a chore because they have such far-reaching root systems.

In answer to my questions, I’m going to say “yes,” that the hybrids are invasive and just not worth the trouble they cause in the garden, delightful though they are in the early spring. Consequently, my advice is this: plant with caution while keeping a close eye on them. Otherwise, you’ll quickly be overrun.

For more dissection of the various hellebore species, go to: https://www.plantdelights.com/blogs/articles/hellebores-winter-hardy-shade-perennials-for-the-woodland-garden.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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2 Comments on "Hellebore: Friend or Foe?"

  1. Charles Coble | March 23, 2020 at 8:02 am | Reply

    Thanks for this excellent commentary. In my heart I have known that the fast spreading hard to dig up Helliboris in my garden HAS to be an invasive, but I have so delighted in IRS early and sustained bloom that I have accommodated to them. I henceforth promise to be more diligent about containing them! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for the great article. I have gone through a similar experience. I planted them 20 years ago and rue the day. I thought I dug them all up about ten years ago but they are back as vigorous as ever (many probably from seed).
    I am a beekeeper as well and honey bees are really drawn to these flowers. Unfortunately, beekeepers are planting them because they don’t know any better.
    I have even sent some of them photos of front yards in my older neighborhood where it is literally looks like a hellebore monoculture except for the trees and shrubs.

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