Just as the days start to lengthen and we all take a sigh of relief that we are on the right side of winter, out emerges one of my favourite flowers and one I look forward to seeing each year. It is of course, the humble hellebore. Sitting patiently alongside the brash show-offs of the summer herbaceous border, it really comes into it's own at the start of the year when all else is deep in its winter slumber. Originating in Europe and Asia, the hellebore became a popular garden staple in cottage gardens and is revered by gardeners for its early flowering prowess.
The Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, with its pure white blossoms is native to montane areas of Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Once used for its medicinal properties as a purgative, this leathery-leaved evergreen is poisonous like most members of the buttercup or Ranunculaceae family. The most widely cultivated varieties are undoubtedly belonging to Helleborus orientalis or more specifically Helleborus x hybridus and commonly known as the Lenten rose or the oriental hellebore.
These charming little beauties can come in a wide range of colours, from dusky pinks and almost blackish purples to more delicate specimens with cheeky speckled faces and for a real treat, double flowers. Each winter, once the buds start to emerge, it is best to trim the old foliage to let the flowers really shine. Although quite delicate in appearance, these will add a wonderful promise of the ensuing growing season for a few months once grown in relatively fertile, moist soil with a neutral pH and are best grown in dappled shade. Beware though, they have a tendency to self-seed so can be a bit of a nuisance if growing in mulched borders or near gravel paths but I can forgive them if you can!
Other, more striking hellebores and ones which flower on the tip of robust taller stems, are commonly known as the Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius). These also emerge at the start of the year with the most handsome, lime green flowers which sit comfortably atop holly-like leaves. The citrusy blossoms simply glow in the garden and are a real asset to a dark corner or under a shady tree. Other similar lime-flowered specimens include the stinking hellebore, commonly named Helleborus foetidus. This is a much more delicate relative with a finely cut leaf and a hint of red tinging the margin of the flowers. The stinking moniker refers to the leaves, which when crushed release an unpleasant smell but like a mother advising a child who says it hurts when I touch my sore leg just don’t crush the smelly leaves. As is the case with their oriental cousins, they will show off for weeks on end, as the spring bulbs start to emerge. They need very little attention and can withstand the coldest of springs, even laden down with snow but luckily enough, that is not an issue we often have to contend with in our temperate little corner of Europe.
The H. x hybridus cultivars are easy to propagate by division in September, simply divide the clumps ensuring they retain some growing tips and plant in their new home. The H. argutifolius do not take kindly to division so can be grown from seed but like most other herbaceous perennials can take a number of years before you will achieve any flowers so gardeners be warned, a little patience is needed but isn’t that what we excel at!