Plant of the Month: The Hellebore

Plant of the Month: The Hellebore

I remember the first hellebore I ever saw, its subtle purple flowers rising above a swathe of snowdrops in a garden that had long reverted to woodland. I lifted a shy, downward- facing flower and was smitten by its cool beauty. Although that first meeting was over thirty years ago, the family helleborus has continued to exert a fascination.

There are two kinds of hellebore: those with permanent stems and those without. Those with stems include Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican hellebore) and Helleborus foetidus (a British native). Those without stems, where the flowers rise from the ground on scapes distinct from the leaves, include Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) and Helleborus x hybridus (Lenten rose).

Hellebores show a great variety of characteristics within species and also cross-breed readily. This makes them tricky to categorise, and tempting to collect. Specimens of Helleborus x hybridus, (until recently called Helleborus orientalis hybrids), may owe their colour or form to two or three different species or crosses. Add to this the fact that plants resent division and seedlings don’t flower until their third season and you have an infuriating but rewarding plant group. Establishing varieties stable enough to be named is every breeder’s goal.
In the wild, hellebores grow in scrub or open woodland, sunny in winter but overgrown with bracken or shaded by trees in the summer. I have seen Helleborus argutifolius growing with Euphorbia characias ssp.wulfenii in a sun-drenched valley in its native Corsica. Helleborus niger is an alpine, blooming in the mountains on the edge of melting snow. In gardens most species prefer light or partial shade and deep rich soil with even moisture levels. They tolerate a range of soil types, but do best in slightly alkaline conditions. Give them a seaweed feed in September when the buds are forming underground, and again in early spring. Poor drainage will lead to rotting crowns. Deep winter shade will reduce flowering. Poor air circulation encourages fungal spotting, to which hellebores are prone.
Hellebores are long-lived plants, as evidenced by the vigorous clumps persisting in that abandoned garden where I first encountered them. Meet their modest needs and they will reward you for decades.

The Perennial Princess.

For a thorough study of hellebores see Hellebores: a comprehensive guide by Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler
For a choice of rare varieties, including species see Ashwood Nurseries on-line.
At Woodgate we have a selection of hellebores including H. foetidus. H. niger and H. x hybridus.