Last summer and this spring have been very challenging for Northwest growers, weather-wise. Here in western Washington we had the coldest summer in forty years, followed by a La Nina winter with the one-two punch of early November and late February arctic visitations (Alaska we love you and all, but…). Then came spring. Wait, did it?

The thing about vile weather patterns is you can look around and assess who the real troupers are — who’s keeping us out of hawk while we wait for our peony crop to come on? This spring’s rock stars for us were all types of Helleborus orientalis. We harvested bucketloads and immediately sold every bunch of ten stems for $14 for ten stems.

I’ve gotten to thinking that the hellebore has the potential to be a commodity crop. This year we sold 40 bunches harvested from mostly young plants. We could have sold at least five times the amount we grew, and probably for a higher price. And this was at a brand new market with a small customer base. The hellebore’s haute couture, yet informal and gardeny look adds up to universal appeal. Designers absolutely love them and for good reason. You can dress them up or down and they go with everything. They act as both filler and focus flower and come in a startling range of colors with lots of greens and roses and muted, mixed antique tones, not unlike hydrangeas.

If harvested at the correct stage (any time after the stamens have dropped) they easily have a ten-day vase life, do not need floral preservatives and are a pleasure to grow and harvest. For many years when I was a gardener before taking up flower farming, I observed hellebores in the landscape setting. They can grow in the sun or shade in our climate, but actually flower more if given at least some direct sun, love humus-rich soil, thrive in clay or loam, like their compost but really don’t need much fertilizer, can tolerate a fair amount of drought and will live for decades.

As an economic crop, I’ve started to compare them to peonies. Cost in dollars and time to establish a crop, longevity of plants, yield of stems per plant and the price you can get per stem are all similar. Like peonies, hellebores can suffer from botrytis, but that problem is mostly preventable by removing last year’s foliage in late January. They are also candy to slugs and snails, easily checked with a dose or two of Sluggo. Other than that, they really are a breeze to grow—and we’re talking about a crop that’s on for us in April when just about any farmer could use the cash.

Unlike peonies, hellebores propagate themselves readily from seed. In fact, our original plantings which were supposed to be part of the landscaping around our house (nothing is sacred from the shears around here) were dug as seedlings from gardens I used to work in. They are what I call “garden variety” hellebores and come in a range of purples, roses and pale green tones of varying stem lengths, some with freckles, some nodding, some holding their flowers more upright. Seedling hellebores can be purchased as 4″ plants or in one-gallon pots from wholesale landscape nurseries for a reasonable price.

And then there are the new designer-bred hellebores which I have seen at local garden centers for as much as $40 for a one-gallon pot. The thing is, they truly are heartbreaking with picoteed edges, outrageously prominent freckles, double flowers, unusual colors like slate, jade and ebony black. Even when purchased as liners, they are hard to justify cost-wise. A couple of years ago I bought three or four 20-plug trays of Winter Jewels mix to see how they would compare as cuts to our garden variety plantings. This year, they made a crop for the first time and let’s just say we’re buying a whole lot more at $4-6 per liner plant. We plan to sell these stems at a higher price and know we will get it. Varieties we are particularly fond of include the Winter Jewels series, the Mardi Gras series and the Winter Thrillers series. My hat is off to the breeders of these beauties.

For the patient and thrifty grower, hellebores can be started from seed. A dazzling array of varieties are available this way. Since they need a cold period to germinate, one can mimic their natural conditions by broadcasting seed into open flats in the fall and placing in a protected outdoor location until spring sprouting has occurred. Expect to wait three to four years to begin harvesting.

Helleborus orientalis originated in the Caucasus Mountains of Europe. They are woodland plants which can withstand quite cold temperatures, at least down to zone 4. This past February our hellebores withstood 15 degree temperatures without a blink when the flowers were already emerging. Instinctively I’ve planted them close in to our buildings where they get some wind protection. I don’t know how they would do in our open fields. Taking those considerations into account, I’m guessing they would do very well in a lot of parts of this country from southern Alaska to even some warmer areas, maybe with a little shade cloth and always with plenty of good compost. I wonder if our members in the British Isles grow them as a cut flower crop?

The new Seattle Wholesale Growers Market has provided our farm with an opportunity to interact with many more customers than we could in previous years. This gives us the chance to observe which crops are the favorites of just a few designer customers and which are universally embraced by all. Hellebores fall into that second category and I believe their star is just starting to rise. If your climate will allow, plant some. I don’t think you will regret it.

Diane Szukovathy

Jello Mold Farm

Diane Szukovathy Jello Mold Farm Contact at [email protected]