November 2002
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Garden design using shade plants and shade trees   

Gardening Newsletter - November 2002, Issue 3

Well I managed to put my electronic foot in my mouth with the last newsletter. You may remember I pined that “Things are a little lonely at the Discussion Forum”. Well it turns out that the discussion forum wasn’t working (Thanks to Elizabeth for pointing that out !). That has been corrected and I encourage your questions, opinions and comments on shade gardening.

One of the questions we’ve received is that people are getting the newsletter, but all of the pictures are missing. The most likely solution is to make sure you are connected to the Internet when you read the newsletter. To keep the size of the newsletter down, it doesn’t actually contain the pictures. Instead it contains links to the pictures stored on the web site. If you are not connected to the Internet, you’ll typically see small red squares. Another aspect of this issue is that your mail reader may try to establish a connection to the Internet when you open the newsletter. It knows the pictures are on the Internet and is trying to get to them.

Rebecca Green
Horticulturist

Extinction Bigger Threat than Previously Thought

The November 1, 2002 issue of Science reports that 22% - 47% of all plants worldwide are endanger of becoming extinct. This is an increase from 13%. The reason for the broad range is that scientists don’t yet know how many species there are. The biggest threat to plants is the increasing demand for farmland, resulting in tropical rainforests being cleared.

Late Fall a Busy Time for Gardeners

Despite the prediction for snow this week, I’m still busy in the garden. Here is my late fall gardening “to-do” list. How are you doing with your list?

Last call to plant spring flowering bulbs

Deciduous trees (those that loose their leaves) can be planted until the ground freezes

Final lawn mowing of the season (in colder climates)

Clean-up fallen leaves and grind them into mulch

Put a top coat of mulch on perennial beds

Water, as needed, until the ground freezes

In extremely cold or exposed locations build burlap screens to protect the plants from drying winds

Christmas Tree has Ancient Origins

Christmas treeThe tradition of the Christmas tree goes back long before the first Christmas. With the arrival of winter solstice, the Egyptians brought green date palm leaves into their home to symbolize life’s triumph over death.

The Romans celebrated winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia, in honor of the god of agriculture, Saturnus. They decorated their homes with evergreens and lights and, even exchanged gifts.

In ancient Great Britain the Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life during winter solstice rituals. To keep evil spirits away, they would place branches of evergreens over doors.

Late in the Middle Ages the Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees inside their homes as a sign of hope for the coming spring.

Legend has it that Martin Luther started the tradition of decorating trees to celebrate Christmas. One Christmas Eve he was so motivated by some snow covered evergreens that he brought a fir tree into his house and decorated it with lit candles to celebrate Christ’s birth.

With the arrival of Hessian troops during the American Revolution and the immigration of Germans to the new world, the Christmas tree was brought to America.

The Christmas tree market was born in 1851 when a farmer brought two ox drawn sleds of evergreens to New York City. Not only did he sell all of his trees, but by 1900 one in five Americans had a Christmas tree. By 1920 virtually every one did.

TopiaryTopiary Makes a Great Decoration

This is the time of year when every one is decorating their home for the holidays. But just because winter is around the corner doesn’t mean you can’t use living plants to add a festive feeling to your home. Potted evergreen topiaries make a wonderful festive statement. Best yet, they can be planted in the garden in the spring!

Many evergreens are sun lovers. However, the most festive of them all, holly, does quite well in shade.

Plant of the Month

HelleborusHelleborus, Commonly called Lenten or Christmas Rose

The group of plants commonly called hellebores are members of the buttercup family, Ranuculaceae. Nevertheless, throughout history they have commonly been referred to as Christmas rose and Lenten rose, as their flowers are somewhat similar to roses.

Hellebores are poisonous. While all parts of the plant contain toxins, they are most highly concentrated in the inner rhizome. The Latin name Helleborus comes the Greek helleboros. In Greek the word helein means to kill, and the word bora means food. Consequently, the Greek word helleboros means 'food that kills'. Deer must know Greek and Latin, because they virtually never eat hellebores.

What makes hellebores so special, besides being deer resistant, is that they are evergreen perennial flowers that bloom during the winter! There are fifteen different species of hellebores. A few characteristics of some of the more commonly found species are provided below:

Christmas-rose (botanically called Helleborus niger) can bloom anytime between November and April. If the winter is very cold it will bloom later. The flowers are typically white with a tiny bit of pink. A native of Europe, Christmas-rose is hardy to zone 3!

Lenten-rose (botanically called Helleborus orientalis) bloom in the spring, from March into May, hence the their common name. The flowers of lenten-rose may be colored chocolate and purplish green to pink and white. A native of Greece, this hellebore is hardy to zone 5.

Corsican hellebore (botanically called Helleborus lividus corsicus) have apple green colored flowers that bloom in early spring. This hellebore is hardy to zone 6, if protected from cold, dry winds.

History is littered with references to hellebores. Hippocorates and Theophrastus used it as a drug nearly 2200 years ago and referred to it as 'poison paste to kill wolves and foxes'. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales hellebores were used as a laxative.

There are many European legends surrounding the Christmas-rose. One of them is that a poor young shepherdess named Madelon started to cry because she didn’t have a gift for baby Jesus. The angle Gabriel touched the ground with his staff and hellebores sprang forth, which Madelon took to baby Jesus.

The hellebore now known as Christmas-rose (Helleborus niger) was also reportedly used in witches’ potions. It was even considered dangerous to dig up a Christmas-rose, so closely linked to sorcery was it. One would first have to draw a circle in the dirt around the plant with their sword. While digging the plant out of the ground prayers would be said to obtain permission from the gods. If an eagle in the east saw you digging up the plant you would surly die within a year.

Assuming you aren’t afraid of hellebore's magical powers, you should plant them in gardens that are shady in the summer, but receive a large amount of sun light in the winter. This is typically found under deciduous trees (those that loose their leaves in the winter). They enjoy a little extra mulch in the summer time, insulating their delicate roots from the hot sun.

I have read that hellebores are a little fussy. High nitrogen fertilizers easily burn their roots. They also dislike having their root systems disturbed and need well-drained moist soil.

However, my hellebores are carefree. I use lots of organic mulch in my garden (pine bark mulch and ground up leaves) that insulates their roots and fertilizes them as it decays. I have never given them commercial fertilizer and every year they get a little bigger. They are planted at the bottom of a slope, so they get a little extra water from the runoff.

While they can be divided to create new plants, this is a little tricky, remember they don’t like to have their roots disturbed. Division should be done in early spring, after flowering. Each divided portion of root should have several 'eyes' (developing leaf buds). Set the roots so that the eyes are about an inch below soil level.

While the deer have left my hellebore alone, I think my resident groundhog has munched on my hellebore several times. Nevertheless, both my hellebore and groundhog quickly come back, seemingly unscathed.

Every year one of the items on my gardening to-do list is plant more hellebore. However, I usually get involved with some big project and forget about the hellebores. Maybe I will get around to planting more this coming season.

That's all for now. If you have any comments or questions on the newsletter, please email us at

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