Plant Profile: Hellebores

Hellebores 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.

Helleborus x hybridus 'White spotted double' in my own garden

As my friend Jenny says about Hellebores “Sad that the flowers face downwards and look unhappy or clinically depressed when they are beautiful inside. They need to face the sun and smile more. I don’t want them pretending to be sunflowers….. but a bit more self esteem is called for”. I think this could be applied to some people too.

One of my own seedlings

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.

A pure white double, Binny Plants
Hellebores originate from an area between Asia and eastern Europe and will grow happily in semi-shade under trees and shrubs, which give them protection from sun in summer and shelter from cold winds in winter. Dig the soil deep before planting and add in plenty humus such as leaf mould, manure or compost. Hellebores are deep rooted so will appreciate this preparation. I have always managed to grow them successfully on clay soil with a mulch of compost and a feed every spring. 

Hellebores and Vinca on a banking, Dingle Nursery, Wales

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 it’s 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!

Helleborus x hybridus White spotted double

Helleborus orientalis 'Harvington Pink Speckled''

I have introduced several cultivars to the nursery gardens from my last garden. Most of my collection are spotted Harvington Hybrids and their children. 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.

Helleborus foetidus, Littleton of Airlie

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. Plant them with Snowdrops, winter aconites, Pulmonarias and ferns for a burst of late winter / early spring colour in the garden.

Helleborus foetidus, Threave

The Quirky Bird Gardener recommends the following:

Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Bob’s Best’
Large, saucer-shaped, pink flushed white flowers in winter through to late spring over glaucus, grey foliage with maroon petioles. Height 30cm. 

The following plants are all from the Lady Series of Hellebores developed by German breeder Gisela Schmiemann who took over Helen Ballard’s stock. They show good form with nice, dark-green foliage and stunning flowers. The plants are seed grown so there is a little bit of variability. To 50cm.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Blue Lady’      
Dark smoky purple blue flowers with cream stamens over lustrous green leaves. Slower growing than the lighter coloured strains.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Pink Lady’
Plain, pale, cup-shaped flowers or dark-pink and cream stamens on tall stems over well-formed, shiny, dark-green leaves.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Red Lady’         
Deep reddish flowers with cream stamens and dark green well formed leaves.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘White Lady Spotted’   
Beautiful white flowers, speckled blood-red all over well-formed, shiny, dark green leaves.

Helleborus X hybridus ‘Yellow Lady’    
An unusual colour with lovely primrose yellow flowers speckled blood red.

Helleborus niger
Traditionally known as the Christmas rose, it’s pure white flowers brighten up a shady spot under trees and shrubs from early winter through to early spring.

Helleborus foetidus
The Stinking Hellebore which grows taller to 80cm with deeply cut dark green, leathery leaves under panicles of  drooping lime green flowers. These are often edged with maroon and despite it’s name it is the crushed leaves that smell not the flowers.

Helleborus Viridis
The green hellebore grows to 60cm with green flowers appearing
from February to April over dark green leaves.

Helleborus x hybridus Ashwood Garden hybrids
This is a group of with leathery, divided, glossy, dark green leaves and, from late winter to early spring, saucer-shaped flowers in shades of white, purple, pink, red, apricot, green, yellow and black, some spotted, blotched with maroon or streaked with red. Choose them in flower so you know what you are getting.

Helleborus x hybridus White spotted double
This is a beautiful plant with double white flowers covered in maroon spots. A large clump of these are truly wonderful, as is my own plant here in my own garden, Hellebore perfection!

Helleborus x sternii
Purple-tinted, creamy-green, bowl-shaped flowers appear from February to April. These beautiful hellebores look great planted in groups of three towards the front of a mixed border in sun or partial shade. One of the most eye-catching varieties of hellebore, for maximum results they require a neutral to alkaline soil in sun or partial shade.

Seedling at Binny Plants

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. 

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.

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  1. With a view to maintain good health and fertility of the soil, introduced Biofertilizers under the brand name “legimes”.


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