Taisha is the author and photographer for today’s entry. She writes:
Helleborus x hybridus (Royal Heritage Strain) is a welcome harbinger of spring here at UBC Botanical Garden, blooming now in the European Woodland section of the E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden. Because they often flower in mid-winter, members of this genus are commonly named Christmas or Lenten roses. They are not true roses, belonging instead to the buttercup family or Ranunculaceae–a family containing many early-spring flowering species.
Helleborus is a genus of about twenty herbaceous perennial species, most of which are grown for their ornamental value. Helleborus x hybridus (Royal Heritage Strain) is a hybrid strain of seed with a wide variety of colours and tones in the sepals of the nodding blossoms. Leathery serrated leaves subtend the flowers and are spread along the thick stem.
Enjoying the sights of early blooms is one thing, but one can also wonder about the reasons behind early-spring blossoms. Phenology in plants is the study of lifecycle events (like flowering) and how the timing of such events are influenced by climate and environmental conditions. These conditions could include such things as temperature, length of day, elevation, disturbance, and competition from neighbours. Despite the potential drawbacks to blooming early such as tissue damage from fluctuating and sub-zero temperatures or few active pollinators, there are some adaptive advantages to flowering a little earlier than other adjacent plants. For example, early blooming plants may have increased exposure to light in the early days of the year before deciduous trees leaf out and other species grow up around it. This is particularly advantageous for hellebores, which are generally woodland species.
With regard to pollinators in the late winter or early spring: yes, it is likely that only a few are active. However, those few only have a limited amount of flowers to choose from and visit, so the advantage to being an early-spring flowering species is that there are few other competitors attempting to attract pollinators. For Helleborus spp., the number of insect visits (often bumblebees or Bombus spp.) is primarily determined by flower display and density. Evidence also suggests that early blossoms favor out-crossing. With fewer overall blossoms in early spring, pollinators must travel greater distances and therefore disperse genes over greater distances. Although the flowers of Helleborus are functionally hermaphroditic (protogynous) and self-compatible, a little pollen from a flower farther away may result in progeny that have additional frost- or disease-resistance.