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Hellebores - beautiful harbingers of spring

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In mid-winter and spring when our gardens are often at their most dreary the Lenten Roses thrust their way through the frozen earth to produce their delicate blooms; withstanding extreme cold, snow and frost.

Helleborus species are mostly low-growing compact plants with hand-shaped, often toothed, short-stemmed, deep green leaves that emerge from a fleshy rootstock. The simple, 5-petalled, bowl-shaped flowers appear from mid-winter through to spring and are available in unusual shades of green, dusky pink, and maroon, as well as white. The "petals" are actually sepals that shelter the tiny ‘true flowers’ nestled in the centre of the blossoms which are surrounded by prominent, green, nectar-containing sacs and a number of yellow stamens. These petal-like sepals remain on the plant for several months, long after the true flowers have faded and seeds have set.

Hellebores are continually being selected and bred for flower colour and form. Most varieties are crosses of Helleborus orientalis and its colourful hybrids H. × hybridus, which are undoubtedly the most popular hellebores for garden use. Hybridising has vastly improved the colour-range of the flowers, which now extends from slate grey to near-black, deep purple and plum, through rich reds and pinks to yellow, cream, pure white and green. Recent breeding programmes have also created double-flowered and anemone-centred plants.

Despite their common names, they are not closely related to the rose family; but belong to the family Ranunculaceae. Because they bloom around the period of Lent, they are often referred to as Lenten Hellebores or Lenten roses. Members of the genus Helleborus comprise of approximately 20 species of herbaceous deciduous, or evergreen perennial, flowering plants. Most varieties are native to the mountainous limestone regions of Europe, from western Great Britain, Spain and Portugal, eastward across the Mediterranean region and central Europe into Romania and Ukraine, and along the north coast of Turkey into the Caucasus; with the greatest concentration of species occurring in the Balkans. Hellebores are separated into two main groups horticulturally. Simply put, the ‘caulescent’ hellebores are those with (above-ground) stems and the ‘acaulescent’ plants are those without visible above ground stems.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) is native to North-eastern Greece, northern and north-eastern Turkey and Caucasian Russia. It is the most commonly grown garden variety with many hybrids to choose from; with large drooping flowers in colours ranging from white to pink to light rose-purple and green, frequently with interior spotting.  It has an ultimate height and spread of about 50cm but can take 2 to 3 years to reach its ultimate height. Plants will remain evergreen in moderate winters, but may become scorched and tattered in extremely cold weather, particularly if not insulated by snow cover. It tolerates most growing conditions but does best in rich, well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil.

Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is native to Central and Southern Europe, Greece, and Asia Minor. In Europe it is considered one of the most traditional and noble seasonal plants of the Christmas time. It is also one of the first Hellebores to produce its pure white flowers in the depths of winter; the flowers often age to blush pink.  It is semi-evergreen and can reach a height and spread of 50cm, but can take 2 to 3 years to reach its ultimate height. Large-flowered cultivars are available, as are pink-flowered and double-flowered selections.

Holly-leaved Hellebore, Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius syn H. corsicus) is native to France, Corsica, Italy and Sardinia; where it is found growing amongst bracken alongside streams and roadsides. It is a robust evergreen with large green leaves with coarse, spiny teeth, which can reach a height and spread of 1m, but can take 2 to 3 years to reach its ultimate height. It produces a multitude of beautiful pale apple-green flowers on strong, tall, branched stems.  It is not very drought tolerant and prefers medium levels of water. It is adaptable to most neutral to alkaline soils, and will even grow in heavy clay. This plant has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.    

Stinking Hellebore, Bear's Foot, Dungwort, (Helleborus foetidus) is native to the mountainous regions of Central and Southern Europe, Greece and Asia Minor, often occurring naturally on chalk or limestone soils. It is also found wild in many parts of England, and has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. It is evergreen with an ultimate height of 60 to 80cm and an even greater spread, but it can take 2 to 3 years to reach its ultimate height. The flowers are yellowish-green, often with a purple edge. Despite its common name, it is not noticeably smelly but the flowers have a mild scent and the foliage is pungent when crushed.  This species is drought-tolerant and requires very well drained soils, so is excellent in dry shade.

Green Hellebore (Helleborus viridis) has a wide distribution, growing naturally in the meadows of most of western and central Europe, but primarily centred on northern Italy and the surrounding alpine regions. It is a fully deciduous species which produces some of the darkest green flowers of any hellebore. Plants with yellow-green flowers are found in some areas. It remains short and compact, growing 30 to 40cm tall with an equal spread, but can take 2 to 3 years to reach its ultimate height.

In the Garden:

These perennial garden plants are so easy to grow that they are great for beginner gardeners and excellent for bringing early colour to shady borders and traditional cottage gardens. Because most are tolerant of dry shade, with Helleborus foetidus being the most tolerant of very dry soils; they are excellent planted in mass as a groundcover; thriving in deciduous woodland conditions which provide light in winter and shade in summer.  Some species are grown for their striking evergreen architectural foliage and they are all long lasting cut flowers.

Helleborus x hybridus - Picture courtesy Peter RichardsonHelleborus x hybridus - Picture courtesy Peter RichardsonHelleborus x hybridus - Picture courtesy Peter RichardsonCultivation:

These fully hardy plants grow best in cool, reasonably moist regions, and are not suited to hot, humid areas.  In extremely dry regions they must be watered regularly. Try to site them in the garden where they are sheltered from very strong, cold winds. Lenten roses grow well in dappled or semi-shade, and although the plants will even grow in complete shade; because the plant needs light to initiate flower buds, they will not flower well in dense or dark shade.

Lenten roses are adaptable to most garden soils but do best if grown in deep, slightly alkaline, humus-rich, well-drained soil. In slightly acid soils, add a sprinkling of agricultural lime to the planting hole. Where growth is unsatisfactory, apply a general-purpose fertiliser, or fish, blood & bone fertilisers in spring. Container grown specimens can be fed with balanced liquid fertiliser, or with a high potassium fertiliser such as tomato feed, to encourage blooms.

The subtle flowers of many hellebores are often hidden by the large leaves, so ensure they can be seen clearly by removing the old leaves on stemless types in late winter or early spring, as the flower buds emerge.

Hellebores resent disturbance but if they become overcrowded, lift and divide in spring or autumn, keeping the divisions large. Many species benefit from having the old foliage removed when the plants are dormant.

Propagation:

Hellebores are self-seeding and propagate very easily from the seeds which form in large seedpods when the flowers have finished.  The plants resent disturbance but if they become overcrowded, lift and divide in spring or autumn, keeping the divisions large. The new divisions may be slow to establish, due to the lack of fine roots, and flowering may be poor in the following year, but they are likely to settle in, given time.

Pests & Diseases:

Removing the old leaves on stemless types in late winter or early spring as the flower buds emerge will greatly reduce diseased foliage that can harbour hellebore leaf spot, an unsightly fungal disease. Exposing the flowers in this way will also help insects to pollinate the flowers and ensure good seed set.  Also, watch out for aphids and leaf miner.

Warning:

All parts of the plant are toxic to humans, cats, dogs and horses, due to a variety of key components: protoanemonin, veratrin, glycosides and bufadienolides. Clinical signs include drooling, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, colic and depression. Be very careful when harvesting hellebore seeds as they can cause skin irritation. It is best to wait until the seed pods dry out and then just shake them into a container.

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