Jill Weatherhead is a horticulturalist and garden designers with many years experience in growing hellebores. Jill discusses hellebore types, history and breeding as well as conditions under which hellebores will grow well. Informative discussion on Hellebore varieties available for sale, as well as information on companion plants and hellebore care.
Article by Jill Weatherhead
Hellebores or Winter Roses (Helleborus species) are one of my favourite flowers. Any flowers in Winter are welcome of course, and now that July has turned to August we have hellebores as well as wattles, Epacris (native heath) in pink and white; yellow, perfumed Mahonia and camellias to enrich our gardens. Purple, white or yellow Crocus and glistening white snowdrops (Galanthus) complete the picture.
Hellebores have dangling cup-shaped flowers which invite one to reach down and look inside. The outside of the sepals (which look like petals: the true petals are reduced to nectaries within the flower) may be rich pink while the inside may be paler, sometimes spotted, within. Dark nectaries can make the flower even more fascinating.
The pink, plum and white varieties are known as Helleborus x hybridus and incorrectly as Oriental varieties because there are genes from H. torquatus and others in the parentage of these varieties, not just H. orientalis which is greenish-white in the wild. H. x hybridus vary from green, white, pink to purple and plum-black. Yellow ones are occasionally available and grey-blue and spotted ones are irresistable. Old varieties may have green through the flower – I find this muddy and dig up any that display a greenish hue as I prefer purer colour. Doubles and anemone-centred flowers are slowly becoming available. So-called black and yellow-flowering plants may be grown from seed (from Chilterns Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, England.)
Breeding New Hellebore Varieties
Breeders in England, Germany and the U.S. are leading the way in the development of these plants, aiming for bigger flowers with good rounded bowl-shape, overlapping petals and out-facing flowers. In Somerset the Popes are, surprisingly, aiming for more star-shaped flowers.
The earliest hellebore to flower is a beautiful green species, the Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius (syn. H. corsicus). Attractive serrated grey-green leaves are topped in June, July and August with large apple-green cup-shaped flowers. Even non-gardeners are struck by its beauty and it forms clumps up to 1m across and 75cm high. Every June I tell myself to plant more which is easy, because, after 2 years, the plants have many seedlings around them. The seeds are heavy and do not spread by water or wind so they do not become weedy. Such a great plant under trees, I was quite upset to find that my parents-in-law pulling theirs out (after I had planted them); I could see that each group of plants with its seedlings stayed discretely in its place. This species is the most sun-tolerant of the hellebores although it also likes semishade or morning sun. A variegated form is `Pacific Frost’, quite attractive (seed available from Plantworld Seeds).
Helleborus foetidus is an upstanding plant with beautiful leaves in thin, dark slivers. A variant called `Wester Flisk’ (found in a garden of this name in Scotland) has an interesting red flush to the stems. Green flowers are edged red in late Winter. I find it becomes leggy in full shade so it is probably best in morning sun. Forms with gold-splashed leaves are available from seed (from Plantworld Seeds). I have grown `Sopron’ with dark lead-grey foliage and `Miss Jeckyll’s Scented’ which I look forward to seeing (and smelling) in flower.
Helleborus lividus has pink-flushed green flowers in Spring over attractive marbled leaves. The English “Christmas Rose”, H. niger has beautiful white flowers, good for picking, which flush pink in strains such as `Sunrise’ and `Sunset’. I find they dislike excessive watering in Winter. Other species may have small purple-brown flowers, some green within and surprisingly attractive, such as H. atrorubens, H. purpurescens and H. torquatus. H. viridus has small green flowers and H. cyclophyllus has green flowers with a nice rounded shape. One of the best for foliage is rare: H. multifidus subsp. hercegovinus with lacy , much-divided leaves. Another much-sought after plant is H. versicarius which has inflated seed pods; this species hates Summer moisture.
In Canberra, Ian Collier sometimes has an August sale of flowering plants and from him I bought my sensational H. x ballardiae (H. lividus x H. niger). It has large bowl-shaped white flowers flushed salmon-pink on the reverse and tolerates full sun in my garden in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. Other hybrids include H. x sternii (H. argutifolius x H. lividus) which has upstanding stems of green flowers over hardy, serrated mid-green flowers. A variant of this cross is H. x sternii `Boughton Beauty’ with stunning burgundy stems and tinting to the flowers. H. x nigercors (H. argutifolius x H. niger) is a rare, beautiful plant with gr eenish-white flowers on tall stems: a gem sometimes available from Ian Collier.
The “holy grail” is H. thibetanus with pale pink flowers in Spring; it is pictured in “Growing Hellebores” by Rice and Strangman, delicious! I have begged Will McLewin for seed even though it is rare in England. Red flowering forms and marbled-leaf forms are available from Paul Christian Rare Plants in Wales. I imported 30 in 2000 but all died in quarantine so I think seed is the answer for this species.
I import seed from England and Germany. Patience is needed: the seeds of hellebores require 2 cold periods prior to germination so I usually sow seed in Autumn and then the following Summer I place the pots in the fridge for 2 months. (A compliant husband is useful!) Some still do not germinate and so these sit in a “dead pot” area under a gum tree because it is hard to throw away seed worth $1 each – this is why good hellebores are never cheap! Try buying them in flower or seedlings from named cultivars eg H. ex `Old Ugly’: the seeds are at least taken from known, good cultivars. Alternatively I try to cross-pollinate my own plants when possible. My friend Peter Leigh grows lovely hellebores. (phone 54273227).
Most hellebores prefer semishade particularly in hot areas. Mine in the garden are never watered. Like most perennials, hellebores are best planted in Autumn but they are so hardy that I plant them year-round. I am enjoying the reward now.
Happy gardening everyone.