Growing Hellebores - the Roses of Winter

There is nothing better on a bleak January day than to wander into the garden and find a splash of colour in the border.  Anything that flowers at this time of year is a boost for flagging winter spirits, especially if that plant also has attractive leaves that carpet the ground with fresh, sometimes evergreen foliage. If flowering continues into February or later and there is plenty of pollen for early insects like honeybees or queen bumblebees, we are talking about the perfect winter-flowering plant.  In my garden only one group of plants really fulfils all these functions – the wonderful hellebores.

Although there is a wide range of exotic hellebores available in nurseries, we have two wild species in Britain perfectly suited to garden cultivation.  They are not often seen in the countryside - a woodland slope under beech trees is the usual place to see the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) and the green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) but they are also sometimes found in damp valleys, as long as there is some shade.  In their natural habitat they prefer chalk or limestone soils but in cultivation seem able to cope with most conditions, including light sand or heavy clay.  Both have very dark green glossy leaves, pretty pale green flowers but a rather unpleasant scent, especially if the leaves are rubbed. 

These plants were grown in cottage gardens in the past for medicinal use.  They are poisonous, and should be treated with respect for this reason, but their properties made them useful tools in the fight against intestinal worms in animals and children.  It was not always easy to get the dosage just right, and there are reported cases of fatalities.  Whenever you work with these plants ensure that gloves are worn and hands are well washed afterwards. 

Green hellebore is very much a woodland plant, perfect for a dark corner under shrubs, a tree or a hedge where its new bright green leaves, which appear in January and February, brighten up the dullest spot.  The pale green flowers appear in loose, drooping clusters above the foliage and persist well into the spring when the seed pods swell, providing added interest.  Stinking hellebore, in spite of its unfortunate name, is a perfect winter plant, sometimes opening its green flowers which are tipped with maroon as early as December. The clusters are held above the foliage in magnificent sprays and each individual flower is up to an inch across.  They persist for months and like the green hellebore are followed by attractive seed pods.  Both species have spreading hand-shaped evergreen leaves, which make great ground cover and reach a height of about 50cms. Both thrive in heavy shade, but stinking hellebore (or bear’s foot as it is sometimes known), is perfectly at home in some sun too, so could be tried in almost any garden situation. 

As well as our attractive natives with their unusual green flowers, many people grow the oriental hellebores, Helleborus orientalis.  One of the joys of this group of plants is the colour variation that can be found amongst the different varieties.  A couple of plants in my garden, one white flowered and the other dark maroon, have produced a nursery of youngsters in many shades between, some of them beautifully spotted, and all producing copious pollen for early bees.  These are plants best left to their own devices, as they slowly form attractive clumps over time if undisturbed, and will seed well too.

The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, also flowers this month.  Sadly this is a less easy plant to establish, but worth perseverance.  In my previous garden it never coped with the light sandy soil in spite of copious amounts of old manure and leaf mould, as it prefers a heavy soil that never dries out completely.  The cup shaped nodding flowers are white, sometimes suffused with rose pink on the backs of the petals.  The bright golden stamens are held well above the petals and are avidly visited by early bees for their pollen.  Again the dark green divided leaves are evergreen.

There are several other hellebore species available to gardeners.  One of the best performers is Helleborus corsicus (now H. argutifolius) – a perfect winter-flowering plant.  In this species the leaves are prickly and form a clump up to 70cms high.  Mine thrive in the shade of a large beech tree where the grey green leaves contrast well with foliage of wood rush and pendulous sedge, making a lovely green corner throughout the winter.  The bright green flowers and the insects they attract are almost an added bonus.

All the hellebores can be grown from seed, but are slow germinators.  Like several other members of their family (Ranunculaceae – the buttercups and Clematis) they require a good cold period before dormancy is broken.  With care this can be achieved by putting seeds into the freezer for few weeks, but it is much easier to allow nature to do the work for you.  Seeds should be collected as soon as they are ripe (May or June) and sown into pots or trays of peat free compost and covered lightly with grit.  Leave the pots in a sheltered place outside until the following spring when germination will occur and the large glossy leaved seedlings can be pricked out into individual pots.  Alternatively, if you already grow these plants, they will generally self seed well for you, so simply pot up the bright green seedlings you find beneath the parent plants. Keep the pots in a shady place until the summer months, when the young plants can be put in their permanent positions.  Mulch them well, and water if necessary and they should flower the following spring.  All the hellebores are perfectly suited to an organic garden as they have no persistent pests and need only an organic mulch once a year to keep them entirely happy.  Occasionally removing the odd dead leaf is really the only other maintenance they require.

Winter can be a trying time in the garden for wildlife, when conditions are harsh and food is scarce.  We may all feed the birds, but our insects too need some thought at this time.  Growing a variety of good nectar and pollen producing plants which flower over a wide time period (from early bulbs to late perennials) will ensure that early bees and butterflies can find food when they need it.  Add to your border any plant which flowers in winter and has nectar or pollen, and it could be a lifeline for insects in January and February. 

 For many gardeners, there is a feel of spring in the air as soon as the winter solstice has passed, if we take the time to look for it.  The leaves of bulbs are emerging through frosted earth, great tits could be checking out nest boxes for early occupation, and there may be the unexpected drone of a queen bumblebee out of her winter nest.  But for me there is nothing like the stunning green flowers of the wild hellebores, or the speckled petals of their oriental cousins to lift the spirits and give us and our wildlife a glimpse of the good things to come.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017