Who would be without a hellebore or two in the dark months of February and early March, when we long for the onset of spring? Their generous, characterful flowers bring colour and hope to the garden when we need it most, and they really don’t need much to keep them happy.
Hellebores have been cultivated for thousands of years, even as far back as Greek and Roman times, when the plant that we now know as the Christmas rose or the black hellebore (Helleborus niger) was used in medicine. Containing powerful compounds that can be poisonous in large quantities, the roots were believed to be a cure for mental disorders. Britain’s only wild hellebore is Helleborus viridus, which is found in small pockets of the country, particularly on chalky woodland. It is a beautiful plant, with half a dozen or more nodding flowers, their outer petals the same fresh-green as the leaves, with clusters of creamy stamens inside. The Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius, also has green flowers – paler, and held together in clusters – while H. foetidus, the stinking hellebore, has tough, dark green leaves that contrast with a tallish stem bearing numerous pale green bells.
But these wild species of hellebore are less showy than the hybrid plants that most people are drawn to. Known as H. x hybridus, these seed raised hybrids come in a seemingly unending variety of colours – from deep, luscious plum and buttercup yellow to slate grey and purpley-black, some beautifully marked with spots or blotches, others with extravagant double flowers or ‘anemone’ ruffles. In commercial terms, most of these hybrids are difficult to propagate vegetatively (by division) so they are raised from seed, meaning that the flowers can be variable in their appearance. Named cultivars in this group are therefore relatively few, with the emphasis on groups of hybrids, often referred to by colour, shape or markings, and they tend to be available from specialist nurseries either by mail order or (even better) at open days where you can go and choose plants that are in flower. The delightful Bradfield Star hybrids, for instance, bred by Roger Harvey at Harvey’s Garden Plants in Suffolk, have charming, narrow-petalled flowers in white, carmine pink or white with red spots. The Ashwood Garden hybrids from Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands embrace a mouth-watering range of colours, including pinks, greens and apricots, and are particularly noted for their doubles, especially the dark forms, some of which are almost black with a beautiful pearly iridescence. Most of these hybrids will set seed freely, so if you have a handful of different colours and types in your garden, expect your own distinctive hybrids to pop up over the years to come.
If you visit your local garden centre, you will find an increasing range of hellebore cultivars derived from the more stable hybrid H. x ericsmithii, a cross between H. niger and H. sternii developed in the 1970s by a plantsman called Eric Smith. Because this type has been easily micro-propagated, lots of named cultivars exist, many of which are really lovely garden plants. ‘Maestro’ for example is a compact variety with dusky pink flowers and glossy, veined deep green leaves, blooming from late winter to early spring. ‘Merlin’ has deeper pink flowers: pale pink at first, maturing to raspberry, with dark green, marbled or veined leaves. ‘Winter Moonbeam’, introduced by Harveys Garden Plants, has white flowers that age to a dusky pink, contrasting beautifully with silver-veined foliage.
How to grow hellebores
Most hellebores are extremely tough and hardy and need very little cossetting to keep them coming back year after year. In the wild they grow on the edge of woodland in light shade, so ideally give them a position in dappled shade at the front or in the middle of a border, but they will tolerate more shade or more sun too, so don’t get too hung up on where you put them. Making sure the soil is right for them is more important, and boggy ground is their nemesis. They don’t like extremes of anything so the soil must be well drained but not too dry, with plenty of compost or humus added when planting. They will also benefit from an annual mulch of compost or leaf mould in spring or summer. By the end of the year the old leaves can start to look a bit tatty, so you can snip these off just before the new foliage and flowers emerge to tidy the plants up. Hellebores can also be successfully grown in pots, and the H. x ericsmithii types are particularly suitable for this, potted up in a loam-based compost. You can cut hellebores too, and although the stems tend to flop in a vase, the blooms can be snipped off individually and floated in a bowl, or you can immortalize your beautiful flowers by pressing them to make your own artworks or cards.
This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.