Hellebores, sometimes called winter or lenten roses, are fascinating plants that flower during the colder months. They do well in soil that’s fertile and well-drained and enjoy partial shade (and full shade in the heat of summer). This makes hellebores perfect for shady borders and, according to Pennsylvania State University, woodland gardens.
While these perennials are quite special, they truly shine when combined with other plants that like the same growing conditions. By mixing and matching different plants, you can create a garden that boasts various colors and textures throughout the year.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to the ideal companion plants for hellebores and how to incorporate them into a garden design.
What Are Companion Plants and Why Are They Beneficial?
Companion planting involves placing different plant species together to support growth and create a more efficient garden. These are some potential benefits of companion planting:
Aesthetic Appeal: Companion planting incorporates many colors, textures, and growth habits into one space. This will make your garden more visually appealing throughout the year.
Plant Health: Certain plants improve each other’s health. For example, some plants add nitrogen to the soil while others deter pests that would harm their companions.
Increased Biodiversity: A diverse garden attracts a wide range of helpful insects and local wildlife. In turn, these visitors can aid in natural pest control and pollination.
Weed Suppression: Some companion plants act as living mulch, insulating the soil and preventing weed germination.
Types of Plants to Pair with Hellebores
From dense groundcover to spring and late-season blooms, there’s a whole host of plant companions that can be paired with hellebores.
This list is also a good reference if you’re thinking about planting hellebore for the first time. If your garden already has several of the varieties below, you can rest assured that hellebore will fit right in!
Foliage and Groundcover
Ferns: I’m a sucker for a shade garden filled to the brim with ferns. I often pair hellebores with varieties like lady fern or Japanese-painted fern. They enjoy the same woodland conditions and serve as a nice textural contrast to other foliage.
Hostas: Hostas work extremely well in the spaces between other perennials. They’re obviously known for their lush foliage but also attract bumblebees and other insects with their bell-shaped flowers.
Barrenwort: As far as shade tolerance goes, few perennials can beat barrenwort. It offers all-season interest with vibrant foliage and hanging flowers that resemble columbine.
I like to use barrenwort as a groundcover plant in the shadiest parts of the garden — just note that not all varieties spread well. It’s a great aesthetic companion to hellebores and can help suppress weeds between larger plants.
Sweet Woodruff: This ground cover has delicate white flowers and makes a nice carpet around hellebores and other perennials. I’ve used it in the past to create a dense mat underneath some evergreen trees with great results.
Periwinkle: Periwinkle is an attractive groundcover that spreads well and provides year-round interest. As a broadleaf evergreen, it’s also one of the best perennial species for targeted erosion control.
Blue Star Creeper: Growing blue star creeper alongside hellebore works well in my experience. The creeper creates a lush carpet dotted with light blue flowers in spring and summer.
It’s an all-around great ground cover that tolerates shade better than alternatives like creeping phlox.
Japanese Forest Grass: This ornamental grass brings a unique texture to the shade garden. It forms compact mounds and puts out yellow flowers that contrast perfectly against most other low-light perennials.
Crocus and Snowdrops: These tiny spring bulbs are usually the first flowers to emerge after a long winter. Some bloom so early that they can be seen poking through the snow before it melts.
It’s super easy to scatter crocus and snowdrop bulbs throughout a garden bed without imposing on the other plantings. Some people even bury the bulbs in their lawns for a spring surprise.
Cyclamen: This is a great companion plant for hellebores. Cyclamen’s unique flowers — I think they look like little butterflies — add a pop of color from late winter to early spring.
Cyclamen can be grown as a potted houseplant or in a shaded woodland garden.
Bleeding Heart: I find that the summer-blooming Red Perennial Flowers of bleeding heart complements hellebores well. It’s a shade-loving plant, so it’s comfortable growing under trees or in other shaded spots.
A bleeding heart is a spring ephemeral, which means that the plant comes and goes quite quickly. Be sure to balance your garden out with some longer-lasting perennials as well.
Daffodil: Daffodils offer height and a cheery splash of color while other perennials are just sprouting. It’s very easy to mix daffodils and hellebores together since both are clump-forming. However, do note that daffodils flower best with at least 6 hours of sun.
Lungwort: The speckled leaves of lungwort are a welcome sight in my spring garden. While I’m partial to the foliage, the blue and pink flowers are lovely as well.
Lungwort will happily coexist with hellebores in a shady area. Shade and adequate moisture are particularly important for this plant as spring transitions into summer.
Trillium: Trillium is a native wildflower found throughout much of North America. It’s also readily available as a garden perennial.
It spreads via underground rhizomes, producing woodland colonies that bloom for only a short period in the spring. When grown in the shade garden, trillium will slowly spread but won’t crowd out other plantings.
Forsythia: This deciduous shrub is hard to miss in early spring when it’s covered with bright yellow flowers. Forsythia blooms before it sends out new leaves, so some people mistake the flowers for yellow foliage.
Camellia: Camellia is an evergreen shrub well-suited to partial shade in temperature or warm climates (USDA Zones 6 to 9). The flowers come in a range of colors and closely resemble old roses.
Azalea and Rhododendron: These extremely popular shrubs are some of the best ways to add lush spring color anywhere there’s shade.
I personally opt for evergreen azaleas and rhododendrons whenever possible since these varieties offer year-round interest. Deciduous cultivars tend to look scraggly during the winter months.
Summer and Fall Perennials
Japanese Anemone: I like using Japanese anemones to extend the flowering season. They bloom from late summer to fall and, like hellebores, are well-suited to areas with partial shade and well-drained soil.
Astilbe: Using Astilbe as a companion plant is a fantastic choice for adding texture and color to a perennial garden, not to mention height. The fern-like foliage and unique flower spikes contrast well against hellebores.
Daphne: Daphne is a challenging shrub to grow. But I think it’s worth a go if you have the patience for it. At the very least, it adds a unique touch to the garden with its evergreen foliage and fleshy flower petals.
Note that daphne shrubs — especially the berries — are toxic to people and pets if ingested.
Panicled Hydrangea: Panicled hydrangeas make a great backdrop for hellebores thanks to their late-season beauty. They enjoy similar growing conditions and come in numerous styles to meet any garden need.
Coral Bells: Coral bells boast attractive foliage in various colors and dainty flowers that attract a surprising number of pollinators. When planted alongside hellebores, their differing growth habits create a layered effect.
Poor Companion Plants for Hellebores
While hellebores are quite versatile, there are several types of plants you shouldn’t grow in the same bed:
Sun-Loving Plants: Hellebores thrive in partial to full shade, so they won’t pair well with plants that need lots of sun. Roses, sunflowers, and lavender are just a few such plants I wouldn’t grow with hellebores.
Water-Loving Plants: Hellebores need well-drained soil and are susceptible to root rot in damp conditions. Plants that like wet feet make poor companions.
Aggressive Plants: Many spreading plants can choke out hellebores within just a few seasons. Even the groundcover plants recommended in this article can pose a problem if not well-maintained.
Inspiration for Your Hellebore Garden
Creating a garden that fills you with pride involves more than simply picking suitable plants from a list. I’ve learned this from personal experience!
I may not be able to visit your garden and provide hands-on advice but I can certainly share some actionable examples of how to mix hellebores and their companion plants for beautiful results.
Here are three garden bed ideas featuring hellebores and companion plants that will inspire you to design your own:
Woodland Garden — This design is perfect for relaxed gardens shaded by dense tree cover.
Start with ferns and hostas as understory plants, scattered like you’d find them in a forest. Add a tall shrub like a rhododendron or azalea for some early spring color and visual height.
Next, fill the foreground with a combination of hellebore, trillium, barrenwort, or bleeding heart. I also suggest adding a ground cover like sweet woodruff to suppress weeds and fill in empty spaces.
Spring Blooming Garden — This design is all about early spring flowers, which provide pops of color when many plants are still dormant. You can copy this design exactly or supplement it with some of the summers- and fall-blooming perennials suggested above for prolonged interest.
Since this article is about hellebores, I recommend using several different varieties as the garden’s main focus. Complement the hellebores with early-blooming companions like cyclamen and lungwort.
Don’t forget spring bulbs like crocus, snowdrops, and daffodils. For a tall plant at the back, try camellia or forsythia. Periwinkle is a good evergreen ground cover for the front of the garden.
Shade Border Garden — This design works well for a garden along a fence or walkway, or next to a building, that gets ample shade.
Start with mid-sized shrubs like hydrangea and daphne at the back. Then, add a mix of hellebores, coral bells, and astilbe in the middle. Japanese forest grass can be intermixed to anchor the design and fill in sizable gaps.
At the front, plant a shade-loving ground cover like a blue star creeper. Over time, this plant will ‘spill’ out and give the garden a more natural look.
- Pennsylvania State University Hellebore plant profile
- North Carolina State University Helleborus orientalis care requirements
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.