Helleborus orientalis 'Yellow Lady'

Hellebores – what to know and which to grow

Hellebores are the jewels of the garden come winter and early spring, and come in myriad petal forms and colours

Hellebores

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What Herbaceous perennials with nodding, bell-shaped flowers and glossy, semi-evergreen foliage. Single, double and semi-double flower forms exist in a range of pinks, purples, yellows and whites, often with speckled or spotted sepals. The coloured parts of a hellebore flower are not petals but sepals. In most other plants these are green and act as protection for the flower in bud. At the base of the hellebore’s sepals there is a ring of highly modified petals that have fused at the edges to form tubes that hold the flower’s nectar, and so are referred to as nectaries.

Origins In the wild Helleborus species are concentrated in the Balkans, with a few species in northern Europe and one in China. Helleborus x hybridus are the result of labyrinthine cross-pollination.

Season Winter-flowering, from December to April.

Size Approximately 60cm tall.

Cultivation In the wild most hellebores grow under the canopy provided by deciduous trees and shrubs, and this is the idea place for them in the garden. Although they will tolerate sunny situations they grow best in places that are shaded from midday sun. Avoid deep shade, however, as this will inhibit the plants from flowering. Helleborus x hybridus are amenable plants that will grow both in light, sandy soils and in heavy clay soils, as long as the soil is rich in organic matter. Hellebores are deep-rooted so dig a hole about one-and-a-half times the height of a space and incorporate plenty of humus in the form of well-rotted manure, leaf mould, mushroom compost or home-made compost. During their first year, keep the plants well-watered and mulch them with compost each autumn.

Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 6b-7a.

Some favourites

1:
Helleborus x hybridus c. Rachel Warne

Chosen by John Hoyland, plantsman and former nursery owner
Helleborus x hybridus
Hellebores are very fertile plants and they hybridise with ease, as the the crop of seedlings that appears around them testifies. Most of these will have muddy purple flowers, but just occasionally you find a gem of a plant. This was one such, growing among a group of double-flowered and anemone-centred hellebores. A more reliable way to get results like this is to hand-pollinate your plants and sow the seed yourself. That this appeared, with its frilly edge petals and soft pink flowers, with no intervention from me, makes it a one-off delight that I cherish.

2:
Helleborus ericsmithii

Chosen by Derry Watkins of Special Plants Nursery
Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Bob’s Best’ AGM
A cross between H. argutifolius for its hardiness, H. lividus for its leaves and H. niger for its flowers. Unlike orientalis hybrids, it does not like rich woodland conditions. It revels in sun and drainage. It has fabulous outward-facing flowers held well above the leaves. They age from creamy white to pink to almost red; because each flower lasts so long all the colours may be visible at once. The evergreen leaves don’t need to be cut to the ground – just remove tatty ones.

3:
Helleborus orientalis 'Yellow Lady'

Chosen by Chris Marchant at Orchard Dene Nurseries
Helleborus x hybridus ‘Yellow Lady’
There are so many beautiful hellebores that I can’t choose just one as a favourite, but this deserves a mention. Usually unmarked, the flowers are occasionally speckled burgundy at the base of the nectaries. Upright stems hold the flowers proud of the foliage, giving a perfect opportunity to appreciate their long-lasting display. The colour is especially effective teamed with the purples and blues of a woodland border: I have clumps mixed with Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ and the glossy spring foliage of giant colchicums.

4:
Helleborus niger

Chosen by Mat Reese
Helleborus niger hybrid
This selection from Harvington Hellebores has bloomed before Christmas for the past few years and produces little vignettes of sumptuous, white flowers, each blossom centred with a cluster of golden stamens. Although they have a reputation for requiring a limy soil, mine have been thriving in stony, humus-rich, acidic soil for some years. They do take time to establish, resent disturbance, and hate sitting wet. They’re also gross feeders, meaning they are hungry plants and so need to be fed annually with compost.

5:
Helleborus atrorubens

Chosen by Hans Kramer, owner of De Hessenhof
Helleborus atrorubens
In Slovenia, where it grows in the wild, this hellebore – seldom seen in cultivation – starts flowering in April but in the mild, unstable winters of northwest Europe it usually starts to flower in February. With so many hybrids now flooding European nurseries, it is refreshing to see the subtle charm of the true species. This is the only species where the petals, which are in fact sepals, hold their colour long after pollination. What’s more, it’s deciduous so you don’t have to worry about cutting leaves in the winter.

6:
Helleborus x sternii 'Silver Shadow'

Chosen by Fleur van Zonneveld, of De Kleine Plantage
Helleborus x sternii ‘Silver Shadow’
Among the slew of new hellebore hybrids and cultivars, all with fabulous colours, flower shapes and leaf structures, ‘Silver Shadow’ demands a special place. It has extraordinary flower – a mix of pink, green and apricot colours – that rise wonderfully against the silvery leaves with serrated edges. It is lower and more compact than many other hellebores and does very well in pots. Unlike most other hellebores, it likes a sunny, dry and alkaline soil.

7:
Helleborus x hybridus ' White Single'

Chosen by Mat Reese
Helleborus
x hybridus white-flowered
There are many hellebore hybrids to choose from – and I have quite a few of them in the woodland garden at Malverleys – but my default is the white-flowered form with a green eye. Unlike the darker forms, it shows up well, particularly in shady woodland conditions. It has vigour and, if kept isolated from other colours, will self-sow true from seed. In the winter when the ground is too hard or too wet to work, cut out the tatty old leaves and feed with leaf mould so the flowers are displayed at their best.

8:
Helleborus x hybridus 'Harvington Red'

Chosen by Polly Nicholson of Bayntun Flowers
Helleborus
x hybridus Harvington red

Outward-facing, saucer-shaped, flowers in varying shades from deep pink to clear red with deeply cut foliage. This hellebore makes a good cut flower once the seedheads have formed, especially if the tips of stems are seared.

9:
Helleborus x ericsmithii 'Winter Sunshine'

Chosen byJohn Hoyland, plantsman and former nursery owner
Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Winter Sunshine’
H. x ericsmithii has distinguished origins. Firstly, botanist Frederick Stern crossed H. lividus with H. argutifolius to produce the robust and attractive H. x sternii. Sixty years ago plantsman Eric Smith crossed this with the large, white flowers of H. niger. The result was a jewel of a plant with lightly marbled foliage and pink-tinge, white flowers. Thanks to micro-propagation, attractive forms of this plants can be reproduced easily. This one is vigorous and has dark green leaves with a pewter sheen. The flowers are ivory-white, turning a deep pink as they age.

10:
Helleborus foetidus

Chosen by Hans Kramer, owner of De Hessenhof
Helleborus foetidus
Although this is the shortest living hellebore – it rarely lives longer than tree to four years – I could not do without it. It is a good, all-round plant, starting with attractive, deeply divided leaves, which are a dark green. Some cultivars, such as ‘Sopron’, can have a silvery sheen to the lear, while H. foetidus Wester Flisk Group has striking beetroot-coloured stems that contrast well with the pale-green flowers. These begin as rosettes, which tart to elongate as the weather gets cooler, then form light-green buds that gradually open over winter.

Where to see and buy
Ashwood Nurseries
Ashwood Lower Lane, Ashwood, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 0AE
Tel 01384 401996

Hazles Cross Farm Nursery
Hollins Lane, Kingsley, Staffordshire ST10 2EP
Tel 01538 752669
National Collection Holder

Herfordshire Hellebores
Green Lane Farm, Levens Green, Ware, Hertfordshire SG11 1HD
Tel 01920 438458

Twelve Nunns
Mail order only. Suppliers of Harvington Hellebores

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Photography Jason Ingram, Rachel Warne, Maayke de Ridder, Sharon Pearson