Saturday, January 29, 2011

Of Hebes and Hellebores

Hebe jeebie! I never knew a plant named Hebe existed until I moved to the Pacific  NW,  but what wonderful plants they are. Hebe's comprise the largest genus of plants native to New Zealand, where there are about 90-100 species, and nearly all are evergreen. Most bloom, in shades of blue or white, but the most identifiable characteristic of a hebe is it's leaf pattern- normally 4 rows of opposite leaves, as if designed by a silk plant artist. There are tiny shrub hebes and small tree hebes to about 20 feet, and all are unfussy about soil type, or moisture as long as there is good drainage. Another wonderful characteristic of hebe is it's tolerance for a wide range of temperatures- maybe! That's why some of us get the jeebies when we are thinking about planting and growing them here. You see- this is a plant group that has been  propagated and introduced from several different temperature zones in New Zealand, French Polynesia and the Falkland Islands. Temperatures vary greatly in those regions from tropical to sub-zero, but of course not all hebes survive, let alone thrive in all of those climatic conditions.  Most hebes that we buy in the nurseries here say they are suited to USDA zones 8-10, meaning not too cold- not too hot. But here's the rub- I had hebes in my back yard that showed no sign of frostbite at 18 degrees f. last winter- but succumbed quickly to 25 degrees in December this winter!

Small shrub Hebe with tiny leaves, in a rain garden.
The picture above shows the only hebe in my garden that survived our early winter blast this year, and by all accounts should not be as happy as it is where it is situated. It is in a little catchment area of a downspout, in other words, very wet! But seemingly, most happy. It will aquire more leaves as the weather warms.

Another thing that gives gardeners the jeebies about hebes is pruning, as there is little, if any information about how, and when, or even if we should prune them. My experience has been that if they get leggy and out of control, a good hard pruning results in full, lush, controlled growth. If hebes freeze I have taken the same approach. When spring arrives, we'll see if the hebes I cut within 4-6 inches of the ground reappear. If so- "yippee", but if not, I'll probably go back to the garden center, buy a few to replace them and start again.
 By now, the reader is wondering "where do the hellebores enter into this story"? Below is a picture of a large leaf hellebore which will sport  a magnificent deep purple flower, that appeared growing up in the middle of a hebe I had transplanted from a friends garden about 3 years ago. There was no evidence of the hellebore until late last spring, when it appeared without warning. Three large leaves appeared first, then the flower, but because the hebe was quite large, one had to look closely through the branches to see the hellebore making it's way into the center of the hebe. My plan was to dig up the entire root ball this winter, separate the hebe from the hellebore, and replant each in a suitable place. When the hebe seemingly froze to the ground we cut it back, which pleased the hellebore immensly.

Hellebore which seemingly "appeared from nowwhere"
 Hellebores grow in far flung parts of the world, most coming from Europe. Although often referred to in Great Britain as "Christmas Rose", or "Lenten Rose", these names pertain more to bloom time than species as they are not related to roses at all, but rather are members of the family Ranunuclaceae. Hellebores will thrive in shade, most any soil as well as it is well drained, and are evergreen. They will live for decades in a large pot and require little care.
Purchased in fall, 2005, this "Ivory Prince" blooms each January with little or no maintenance!
Helleborus foetidus, "stinking hellebore" has lime green flowers and toothy leaves
This desert transplant gardener only ever dreamed of growing Christmas Roses and plants from New Zealand when she lived in Arizona... and is filled with wonder at the sight of  translucent papery blooms lifting their heads above shiny green leaves in the midst of the darkest January weather. Like a long lost friend suddenly re-appearing, the blooms bring joy to the heart.  And as for hebes, well I'll have to just go and buy some more if they freeze and don't recover, because they just make me happy to look at them! 

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