Hellebores, also known as the Christmas and Lenten roses, are the classic winter perennial. When most other ornamentals have tucked their flowers well and truly away these hardy souls provide us with an exuberant display of outstanding foliage and wonderful early blooms right throughout the cold and gloomy season.
There are two groups of hellebores, one group have stems (caulescent), with very attractive, often variegated, leaves and mostly green or green/dove-grey flowers, and these include H. foetidus, H. argutifolius and H. lividus. They are very useful in tough, dry conditions, even in shade but cannot be divided.
The other group (acaulescent) are clumping plant without stems, and these include a myriad of species that are now expressed through the modern garden hybrids we know as H. x hybridus. It is this latter group that have become the stars of the genus where intense breeding has produced a cornucopia of colours and large, perfectly rounded flowers, as well as ruffled double and smartly crimped anemone centres.
Now gardeners can purchase plants that they once could only have dreamed of, including inky blacks, smoky-grey slates, emerald green, primrose and rich claret. Many of these colours also come in spotted and blotched forms as well as in picotee, where each flower petal is laced in red or lilac and occasionally stippled in a tracery of darker veining.
Hellebores the Winter Rose – Varieties by the dozen
Where once doubles were a very rare item they now abound, producing large, crisp, multi-layered blooms in almost the same stunning colour range as the single flowers, and gardeners now have the choice of an intermediate form as well. Anemone-centred flowers have a set of normal petals as well as an extra array of smaller, frilly petals at their centre giving the appearance of an Elizabethan collar or ruff.
Despite their more refined looks the plants that produce these flowery gems are no less difficult to grow than the good old garden forms that ones Mum used to enjoy. They are cold to cool temperate climate growers thriving in damp, neutral soil in a semi-shaded, well-ventilated site but will survive long dry periods as long as their tops are shaded and better still if the soil is heavier.
Hellebores will flower throughout winter and as they do their fresh, new leaves begin to emerge. These are highly decorative; being much divided into a filigree segments and leaflets, some very finely so, and will grow on throughout the warmer months. It is prudent to cut these leaves off in late autumn and remove them from the garden as they can harbour pests and diseases, two of the most significant being black spot and aphids. The former can be prevented by following the cultivation advice given above but if the disease is serious then remove infected leaves and crown and apply a general fungicide, like mancozeb. Aphids can be a serious pest on developing leaves and flowers and can transmit debilitating viruses. Removing old leaves will help but keep an eye out for them sheltering inside flowers and buds and emerging leaves and use an insecticide if necessary.
There are some excellent Australian mail order nurseries specializing in hellebores and they supply all of the plants featured here at a fraction of the price overseas gardeners pay. Post Office Farm Nursery is among the best where one can browse their lists.