By Howard Voland Hellebores, I have to admit, have not been a strong interest of mine until recently. Some twenty years ago we bought a couple of different varieties of H. orientalis, more commonly known as Lenten rose. One produced white blooms and the other magenta, both with an underlying greenish tinge so common to hellebores of that time. And the blooms looked down as most hellebores do. H. orientalis, like many hellebores, crosses and seeds easily, and although we tried somewhat halfheartedly to keep the plantings separate, we now have a range of shades from pure white through deep magenta scattered around the yard. With their leathery and fairly thick evergreen leaves, H. orientalis makes a good groundcover even in neglected, shady areas and that’s where we tend to use it. But growers have been doing a lot of work on hybridizing hellebores in the last twenty years and the results are now showing up in nurseries with a much wider range of beautiful colors and shading and more interesting foliage. New varieties of H. niger, more commonly known as the Christmas rose, can be found in bloom at local nurseries now. We bought a couple last year with beautiful pure-white blooms, and true to their name, they started blooming by Christmas this year. Some of the new H. niger hybrids also have blooms that no longer look down. It is generally best to buy hellebores when they are in bloom, which means over the next couple of months as the crosses of H. orientalis and other hellebores start appearing in nurseries. These are often referred to as Helleborus x. hybridus. Cultivation: There are more than 20 species of hellebores, so growing conditions vary. Generally they like neutral to slightly alkaline soils, so it’s a good idea to add lime or lime chips around them as our soils tend to be acidic. Compost may be added in early winter, but don’t cover the crown. They tolerate shade but can also take some sun. They may be transplanted in the spring but they don’t like to be divided, and don’t plant them too deep. However, as they readily seed, it is a good idea to remove or transplant any seedlings that appear as these will not be true to the parent plant. Some species of hellebores, mainly H. foetidus around here, bloom off the previous year’s stem. Otherwise, cut back the stems of most others before the buds open. And generally remove old, damaged or diseased leaves and flower stalks as necessary. Hellebores are generally fairly trouble free, but slugs and snails can be a problem when they go after the blooms. Other Winter Blooming Ideas: When shopping for hellebores over the next couple of months, look for other winter bloomers such as cyclamen coum, which have just started to bloom in our garden. Cyclamen hederfolium finished blooming in the late fall, but their foliage is still a splendid addition to the winter garden. A new favorite is dawn viburnam, viburnum x bodnantense, a shrub which produces clusters of small pink, but very fragrant flowers on bare wood, often throughout the winter. My favorite remains the witch hazels (hammamelis), which can grow into small trees. Again look for them in bloom as some varieties are more fragrant than others. Hamamelis x intermedia, or ‘Arnold Promise,’ is still my favorite when it comes to fragrance. For more ideas, a trip to the winter garden in Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum is a lovely way to spend part of an afternoon. After crossing Lake Washington on SR 520, take the first Seattle exit onto Lake Washington Boulevard S. Turn left off the ramp. Take the next left onto E. Foster Island Road. Turn right onto Arboretum Drive East to reach the Visitor Center. Park there and take the Hillside Trail for a short walk to the winter garden. Much more information on hellebores can be found at www.hellebores.org, and the Snohomish County Master Gardeners are always available to answer your gardening questions through the Master Gardener Hotline at 425-357-6010, weekdays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Howard Voland draws upon sixty years of playing in Snohomish County dirt, and, the opinions expressed here are his alone. You can reach him through www.ravenwriters.com.