Friday, 7 March 2014

Hellebores, Spring Gems for shady places

Hellebores, together with snowdrops, crocus and aconites are ever-popular early spring plants: those flowers that always appeared early in our grandparents and parents gardens, poking out from the dead leaves with their hanging heads, shy to show the beauty they hid within. Mostly these old hellebores were the white H. nigre the "Christmas Rose" and its cousin H. orientalis, the taller purple "Lenten Rose", though they are not related to roses in the slightest. Over the years these species have given rise to a huge number of cultivars, strains and selected seedling collections because they seed freely and the seedlings can give rise to exciting new marked flowers or better foliage.

Helleborus x hybridus 'White spotted double'
I have introduced several cultivars to the gardens at Easter Mosshat over the years, yet strangely H.nigre never survives. Most of my collection are spotted Harvington Hybrids and their children, as when the seedlings that grow like a mini forest under the parent plant are big enough, I plant them out in other shady areas in the garden to see what they will become. In time I will remove the weedy, unexciting ones and keep the interesting well-marked plants. I also have H. sternii, a rougher-leaved upright-growing Hellebore with greenish yellow flowers. It also seeds freely and is great for foliage effect, with its mottled leaves. H. viridis, with its smaller cup shaped green flowers grows well in the woodland garden

One of my own seedlings
A dark flowered seedling at Binny Plants

A double white cultivar at Binny Plants

These days people go mad for the spotted flowering hellebores, especially double whites, of which there are many strains. Another popular group are the very dark, almost black flowering strains. Many of these are sold under a non-specific name such as Hellebore 'Double White Spotted' or Hellebore 'Pink Lady Spotted' or Hellebore 'Black Form'. Because these are all grown from seed there will variations in the pattern of spotting or colour so its always best to buy in flower. That way you can choose the best of the bunch. I once bought H.'Yellow Queen', but when it flowered it was pink!

Dingle Gardens, Wales
Hellebores are easy to grow, they like a reasonable soil, a bit of shade and the old foliage cut off in early spring, so we can enjoy the flowers and new foliage emerging. They do take a while to bulk up enough to split and can be huffy if moved: sulky and refusing to flower much until re-established. Slugs can sometimes be a problem, eating through the stems of forming flowers just as you are looking forward to the flowers opening.

Helleborus x hybridus White spotted double

Hellebores can be bought and planted at any time of year, if bought in pots. Autumn is a good time, so they can get their roots into the warm soil before winter and prepare to flower the following spring. A pinch of general fertiliser will give them a boost when planting and in spring, once you have spring-cleaned the garden. For some interesting cultivars, strains and species have a look at the following nurseries:

A good way to see Hellebores is to visit some of the great gardens open in spring or some of the nurseries specialising in Hellebores (see above). I have visited Ashwood Nursery several times and the gardens at this time of year abound with mouthwatering Hellebores. Binny Plants also has an exciting collection in their woodland garden, with many seedlings from Helen Ballard, a famous Hellebore breeder in the 1950's and 60's.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Ashwood Garden hybrids'

Helleborus orientalis 'Harvington Pink Speckled''

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  1. You've a lovely selection of Hellebores - I'm finding I am drawn to the x ericsmithii hybrids recently - their foliage is gorgeous.

    1. Thanks, they are an interesting genus with so many to choose from. I do like the ones with marked foliage too. H x eric smithii is on my 'to aquire ' list :)