During the barren depths of winter and the harsh early weeks of spring, few plants dare to grow, and even fewer dare to flower. But not the hellebores.
This handsome group of plants appear at a most welcome time and can make up an essential part of a winter display.
Fortunately, they are not too difficult to grow. So as the cold months' approach, it’s good to know that we don’t have to wait until spring to get some colour.
What are hellebores?
It may seem surprising to find out that hellebores are related to buttercups, particularly when many species and hybrids are listed as Christmas and Lenten 'roses'.
The stinking hellebore is a valuable wildflower, feeding bees and early pollinators in the first months of spring.
Hellebores (genus Helleborus) can be found growing throughout Europe and Asia. We even have a native species of our own, the stinking hellebore (H. foetidus). As with many buttercups, hellebores are toxic, so use caution when handling them.
In the wild, hellebores are mostly snow-melt plants, and they grow in areas protected by a blanket of snow through winter.
This means that they do require excellent drainage. Some varieties are more particular than others (see below). Overall, avoid waterlogged, peaty or nutrient-poor soils.
As hellebores have deep roots, it is advisable to enrich the soil with well-rotted manure before planting. A well-drained, humus-rich soil that is slightly alkaline to neutral in pH is best. They also prefer a semi-shaded spot with protection from full blasting sun.
Shelter from icy winter winds is essential.
Hellebores come in a dazzling array of colours from ear black (above) to the pure white of the Christmas rose with shades of pink, purple, green and multicoloured between.
Which hellebore to choose?
Christmas rose (H. niger)
The most popular hellebore, though not the easiest to grow. Often, plants flowering ahead of Christmas have been forced, and it’s more usual to see the blooms from late December onwards. They are instantly recognisable, with white flowers with yellow stamens produced on short plants. H. niger needs excellent winter drainage to perform well but is worth the extra effort.
Lenten rose & Ashwood hybrids (H. orientalis syn. hybridus)
Blooming slightly later than H. niger, the Lenten rose has beautiful pink flowers that should be a staple in any late winter-spring border. The name comes from its proclivity to bloom around Lent; however, blooming times (and the observance of Lent itself) vary slightly from year to year.
H. orientalis hybridises freely, and so plants are often labelled as H. x hybridus.
Of these hybrids, those held in the highest regard are the Ashwood hybrids, which the hellebore specialists created at Ashwood nurseries. They come in a stunning range of colours, often with contrasting interior freckling.
They also are celebrated for their hardy constitution, meaning they are more robust and reliable than most species.
Lift up the drooping flowers of many hellebore hybirds and you'll see the dainty freckles inside.
Stinking hellebore (H. foetidus)
Despite its unpleasant name, this short-lived perennial has attractive green foliage and acid-green flowers edged with purple.
Along with other hellebores, they are beloved by bees for their early nectar and are essential in a wildlife garden. They will self-seed and are named for their pungent foliage.
Holly-leaved hellebore (H. argutifolius syn. lividus subsp. corsicus)
Holly-leaved hellebores are giant when compared to other species. It can reach a metre in height when in flower. The nodding blooms are pale gree, and the foliage is stout, delicately veined and prickly.
H. lividus is closely related to H. argutifolius and often has beautiful silvery veining on its foliage.
Marble and vein-leaved varieties
In addition to their charming flowers, some hellebores have been bred to have intricately marbled foliage.
Varieties to consider: ‘Purple Marble’, ‘Janet Starnes’, ‘Snow fever’, ‘Penny’s Pink’ and ‘Moonlit Marble’.
Tibetan hellebore (H. thibetanus)
Fancy a challenge? The Tibetan hellebore is beloved by enthusiasts for its fragile beauty.
This deciduous plant goes dormant from late summer until early spring, at which time it produces new foliage and delicate flowers comparable to crushed silk.
The difficulty is that plants require near-perfect drainage and a very sheltered spot.
H. thibetanus is an atypical species coming from China. Most other species come from Europe and the Balkans.
Hellebores love to self-seed around the garden, so be prepared to find little seedlings popping up. H. foetidus is a particularly keen self-sow, and as the plant is short-lived, it’s advisable to keep the seedlings to replace the parent plants.
Hellebore seed is only viable for a short period, so sow as soon as ripe from your plants and aim to get in the ground by August at the latest. Use a good quality seed compost, such as John Innes, and add a little extra grit for drainage.
Once plants germinate, don’t allow them to dry out. Keep well-ventilated and ensure they don’t become waterlogged.
Dividing plants is the easiest way to propagate hellebores. Evergreen species should be divided in autumn, whereas you can wait until spring to split deciduous types after they flower. Ensure they’re watered well after transplanting. Plants that have contracted a virus should not be propagated by division (see below).
The swollen seedpods remain within the sepals of the flower and are oddly attractive. The seeds will fall and usually will also germinate.
Pests & Diseases
Hellebore black death
This virus, also known as HeNNV, shows black streaking on the leaves, stems and flower, accompanied by stunted and distorted growth.
Aphids act as vectors, spreading the virus from plant to plant. Unfortunately, being a virus, it is untreatable. Therefore infected plants should be dug up and destroyed.
Hellebore leaf spot
This fungus mainly occurs during the first half of the growing season and is quite common, particularly on H. niger. Watch out for round, dead patches on leaves and stems.
For small infections, remove affected leaves and keep plants tidy. In worse cases, a leafspot control for ornamentals, such as TopRose, Scotts and Provanto, should suffice.
Thankfully this only affects H. foetidus and is a recent introduction to this country. Mines in the leaves by the insect larvae show up as brownish-black blotches and lines and look unsightly. Plants are never too severely affected.
No pesticides are listed for control, but removing leaves before the larvae mature to winged adults will break their life-cycle.
In addition to these hellebore-specific problems also keep your eyes peeled for the usual suspects, below:
Hellebores are a sociable group of plants that fit well into many situations. Due to their preferences, they absolutely thrive in the rich soil and dappled shade of a woodland garden. They mix well with:
And early-interest perennials:
Even outside of a woodland setting, hellebores can work well under deciduous shrubs.
Some, such as Cornus, add flair with their striking winter stems. Others flower ahead of their foliage, appearing which, in turn, will shade the hellebores over the summer months.
For container growing, use a John Innes No.2 with added grit.
Find hellebore plants and support independent growers across the UK
In addition to the many single-flowered species, there are also double-flowered varieties available on the market.
Fun hellebore facts
- Hellebore flowers do not have conventional petals. Instead, they have sepals on the outside (for instance, the white ‘petals’ of a Christmas rose), and the true petals form tubular nectaries on the inside.
- There are other plants with similar names. The helleborines are hardy orchids, and the false hellebore is a member of the bunchflower family. Neither look similar to true hellebores. Mathiasella bupleuroides is occasionally confused for H. foetida.
- Hellebores are the focus of a lot of folklore. From the belief that an eagle will cause your death if it sees you digging one up to the even more absurd idea that sprinkling the powdered roots of H. niger on the floor will make anyone who walks over it invisible.
Could it be true that the Christmas rose has powers of invisibility?
Edited February 2021