London – Perennials bloom riotously in every well-planted garden from May to October. But in February they skulk under ground, refusing to show until the warmer weather returns.
Thank heavens, then for hellebores – the big exception. Their prime time is now and most will look their best for weeks to come. And, thanks to the skills of certain plant breeders, modern hellebore varieties are brighter and more cheerful than ever before.
Hellebores have durable foliage and distinctive five-petalled flowers. They were originally cultivated as medicinal herbs but are largely ornamental nowadays.
Most produce leaves and flowers directly from the ground and can be cut back each year. A few flower on the previous year’s shrubby growth.
Our native stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, is like that. Handsome palmate leaves flourish all year and are topped in winter by pale green maroon-rimmed flowers.
Equally shrubby, Corsican H. argutifolius has apple-green flowers and prickly foliage.
To keep these plants healthy, cut away old stems after they’ve flowered and seeded but leave the new shoots for next year. Volunteer seedlings will surround adult plants but are easy to remove or transplant.
The prettiest and most colourful hellebores are Lenten Roses. That’s the name applied to varieties of H. orientalis often crossed with similar species from Europe and western Asia.
Colours on older varieties used to run from white or green through dusky pinks to muddy purple.
More recently, superb modern hybrids have become available. These result from painstaking hybridisation, particularly by the remarkable John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries, ashwoodnurseries.com. You can now buy oriental hellebores in clear rose-pink, an almost fluorescent green, glowing maroon, black, white and even buttercup yellow.
There are flowers with dark centres, others with contrasting blotches. You can go for double-flowered hybrids, bi-colours, flowers with rounded petals or others with pointy ones. And there’ll be more to come.
Hellebore hybrids are slow to bulk up and take many years to develop.
Unlike most perennials, they’re difficult to propagate from division and impossible from cuttings. They don’t take kindly to mass micropropagation either, so named clonal varieties are hard to come by.
But all hellebores seed freely and, if protected from cross pollination, come pretty true to their parents.
Ashwood offer selected seedlings in specific colour groups. They’re also affordable, running from less than £5 to around £30 for recent introductions.
Thrive on neglect
Oriental hellebores are easy to grow. They benefit from humus-rich soil, which drains freely but stays moist during the flowering period. If planted under trees, they’ll enjoy the partial shade. They dislike wind — especially when flowering — and fair poorly in deep shade or full sun.
Unlike most perennials, which need regular splitting, hellebores are best left untouched. John Massey recommends feeding once in early spring and again in August or September when new growth begins. I use chicken manure pellets (sparingly).
The least dangerous time to divide mature plants is in August, just before the roots come out of dormancy. Re-plant your divisions straight away, in moist, humus-rich soil.
I cut all leaves away from my hellebores in late summer before the new season’s shoots emerge. That avoids the risk of black-spot disease being carried over from the old foliage.
Wonderful though fancy hybrids are, spare a little space for the prettiest of the wild species. My favourite, the Bosnian native Helleborus torquatus has divided leaves and flowers whose black sepal-backs contrast gorgeously with the flowers’ lime green interiors.
The Christmas rose, H. niger, is a superb species but only if it likes your soil.
When happy, in good loam and a sheltered corner, the big snow-white flowers are plentiful and long-lasting.
It’s also the best hellebore for picking and bringing indoors. Despite the festive the name, it seldom flowers until around Ash Wednesday.