Hellebores – The Great Christmas Rose
Hellebore Flowers – Easy To Grow And Great Looking Winter Plants
There are a number of reasons why Hellebores are popular. Hellebore flowers are easy to grow and require low maintenance.
These Flowers look great from January until May and even after seeds have set, their sepals persist in their handsomeness, eventually turning green.
A distinctive feature of their foliage is that it is evergreen, and some of the new varieties of hellebores are adorned with marvelous marbling which complements the flowers beautifully.
There are several varieties of Hellebores across Europe. Their growth is favored by soil that retains moisture relatively well, which is why they thrive in moist or arid locations.
Almost all Hellebores flowers are tolerant of full sun, almost full shade, and some partial shade. A naturalistic scheme or informal planting can make full use of these plants. They are a highly suitable partner for early blooming bulbs, pulmonarias, and evergreen ferns.
Their sepals come in a diversity of colors, ranging from the very soft woodpigeon grey ones to the brilliance of pale apricot or purple, and from leaf green to black or white. Hellebores flowers can come in striped, spotted, or picotee varieties, with a center that is anemone-shaped or simply with a single bloom. Many of them have evolved methods through which they are able to reproduce successfully.
History Of Hellebores
Once used by the ancient Greeks for poisoning the wells of their enemies, this small group of fully to half-hardy perennials is invaluable for bringing the garden alive during the dark winter months, providing both architectural boldness and unusual floral displays.
Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about hellebores. That is hardly surprising. After all, they flower at a time when the gardener is grateful for any crumb of encouragement, and they prefer to be left to grow undisturbed, which means that we don’t have to dig them up and divide them every couple of years. In short, once suited to your site, they are a doddle.
As if that were not enough, they are now grown in such an amazing variety of colors that there are flowers to suit all tastes, whether your predilection is for the brightly spotted, the deep passionate purple, or perhaps the soothing, glistening pure white. They are all there, waiting to be snapped up by us eager growers. It seems that nurserymen cannot produce enough of them.
Time was, and we are going back thirty years or more when the hellebore most people grew was Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose.
For a start, that was a misnomer. Few of them managed to open their flowers in time for the seasonal festivities, and those that did were bashful, nodding blooms needing a finger under their chins to raise their faces heavenward. Today there are varieties of Hellebores like Helleborus niger ‘Potter’s Wheel’, which are moon-faced and far less timid, and strains are also on offer that will reliably open their pure-white flowers in time for Christmas.
Originally from Germany, Italy, Austria, and adjacent parts of Europe, Helleborus niger is never going to stop you in its tracks, except when in flower. The foliage is nothing to write home about, just a cluster of dark, evergreen leaves that sort of sit there doing their job of nourishing the rootstock. Utilitarian you might call them. They don’t even grow very high, almost as if they were embarrassed at being seen.
Varieties Of Hellebores
But Helleborus corsicus is a different matter altogether. It’s a show-off both in leaf and flower. The shoots are fully a meter high, sometimes more, and fat and juicy. These are furnished with trios of mid-green, whiskery leaves that are handsome enough on their own, and doubly so when the pale green flower clusters open atop them in late winter and early spring.
Helleborus corsicus has changed its name in the last few years. It will always be known as the Corsican hellebore, but its Latin handle is now Helleborus argutifolius. Once the flowers have faded you can snip off the stems at ground level and watch the vigorous new shoots coming up to replace them. It’s a lovely plant for tidy-minded gardeners. Big, yes, but so obligingly clean in its habits. Shoots grow one year and then flower the next, and so the cycle progresses.
Everybody’s favorites are the Lenten hellebores. Most of these are grouped under the umbrella title of Helleborus hybridus now, although most of their blood comes from Helleborus orientalis. Restrict most gardeners to one type of hellebore and this would be the one they would plump for, simply because of the wide variety of flower color and the long season of interest in the early months of the year.
Thanks to plant breeders like the late Helen Ballard of Worcestershire and her followers, we now have a race of plants that is wonderfully varied in both flower color and habit. Deep, dusky purples, pale primrose yellows, greens, pinks, and whites are all available, and most of them are strong growers and good do-ers.
Strains are also being raised which have more upward-facing flowers so that the central boss of pale gold stamens can be more readily admired from a standing position. But somehow it is rather nice to see hellebores gracefully arching rather than gazing upwards like an expectant child.
Botanists use a number of characteristics to divide hellebores into groups of similar species.
- Striking features of the structure of the plants, such as the presence of stems.
- Whether or not the individual carpels are joined to each other at the base.
- The shape and surface appearance of the pollen grains.
- The shape and size of the seeds.
- The ability of the plants to hybridize.
- Distinctive features of the leaves, such as the degree of dissection and their hairiness.
- Flower color
- In general Hellebores experts have divided the genus into the following six sections:
Syncarpus: The name refers to the fact that, uniquely among hellebores, the three carpels are joined together for half their length. This section contains just one species, Helleborus vesicarius, which is quite different from all other species. No hybrids involving this species are known.
Griphopus: The name is derived from gryphos (a gryphon) and pous (a foot) and relates to the resemblance between the narrow leaflets and the feet of a gryphon. This section also includes just one species, Helleborus foetidus. Occasional hybrids with the species in the following section have been recorded but are not fertile.
Chenopus: The name derives from the Greek chen (a goose) and pous (a foot) and describes the leaves, which are divided into three broad leaflets. The two other stemmed species, Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus lividus, belong here. When crossed, the two species in this section produce fertile offspring. They have sometimes been treated as one species.
Helleborus: The ancient Greek name for the plant, and probably originally applied by them to Helleborus cyclophyllus. Much later, botanists made the very distinct Helleborus niger the type species of the genus, and so the section containing it must carry the genus name. Helleborus niger produces infertile offspring when crossed with the two species in the previous section.
Helleborastrum: The name indicates a similarity to, but not an exact likeness with, plants in the section Helleborus. This is by far the largest section and contains the following nine species, all of which cross with each other to give fertile offspring: Helleborus atrorubens, Helleborus croaticus, Helleborus cyclophyllus, Helleborus dumetorum, Helleborus multifidus, Helleborus odorus, Helleborus orientalis, Helleborus purpurascens, Helleborus torquatus and Helleborus viridis.
Dicarpon: The name of this section was derived from the fact that its only species was thought to be consistent in having just two maturing carpels. There is just one species in this section, Helleborus thibetanus. Its ability to hybridise with other species is, as yet, uncertain.
How To Grow Hellebores
Hellebores prefer neutral or slightly limy soils; a pH of about 7.0 seems ideal although good plants are often also seen around rhododendrons in gardens with acid conditions. Acid soil can be made more accommodating by liming the whole area before planting, using an alkaline organic material such as spent mushroom compost when improving the soil, or by adding 1-2oz/30-60gm of lime to the planting mix when planting individual plants.
An annual top dressing of 1-2oz/30-60gm of lime per plant, before mulching, can also help. And on very acid soils, even the rhododendrons will appreciate a little lime.
All types of soil can grow good plants although all hellebores hate waterlogged soil. In severe cases waterlogging can be alleviated by installing drainage; working organic matter and grit into the soil to improve the flow of water to lower levels can also be successful and creating raised beds also works well. Planting near mature trees which naturally remove a great deal of moisture from soggy soil is a clever ecological solution for shade lovers.
In general, the more moisture the soil retains the more sun and open exposure hellebores will tolerate. On heavy clay soils, which tend to be moisture-retentive, most will take some sunshine but the plants, and their neighbors, will still benefit from soil improvement.
Organic matter is, as usual, the key but the addition of coarse grit can also improve heavy soil. Thorough winter digging in the traditional style allows both grit and organic matter to be incorporated; forking these materials into the second spit will create noticeable improvements to the workability of the soil and the health of the plants. Well-rotted garden compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mold, spent mushroom compost, bagged soil improvers from the garden center are all suitable forms of organic matter.
How To Plant Hellebores
Preparing thoroughly before planting individual plants is very important for Hellebores. Plants of Hellebore hybrids, in particular, develop deep and extensive root systems which allow them access to potential reserves of moisture and nutrients deep in the soil. So when planting it pays to prepare well.
As it is not necessary, indeed it is a mistake, to split the plants regularly as is usual with many other perennials the plants will remain in the one site for many years developing into large and impressive clumps. So planting time is the one opportunity to improve the soil at the root level.
Dig out a hole to the depth of your spade and 18in/45cm across; fork over the base of the hole and then work in some friable organic matter. The most generally available material is old peat-based or soil-based potting or container compost or the contents of old growing bags, but the truth is that anything is better than nothing.
Add to this a long-term slow-release fertilizer, and some grit on poorly drained soils. Work at least half a bucket of this mix into the base of the hole, then tread firmly. If the general planting area has been hurriedly prepared or if the organic matter could not be applied liberally in general preparation, work some more planting mix into the soil which will be used to refill the hole.
The level of planting is important. Pot-grown hellebores can simply be planted so that the surface of the compost in the pot is level with the surrounding soil. Plants moved from elsewhere in the garden should be set so that the final soil level is 1in/2.5cm above the point at which the roots are attached to the crown.
Refill the hole with soil, tread carefully with the ball of your foot, level off, and water in well. I like to water hellebores with a liquid feed the day before planting and add some liquid feed to the can when watering in afterward. Finish with a 2in/5cm mulch of weed-free organic matter.
Plants of Hellebore hybrids and many of the smaller varieties of hellebores will stay undisturbed for many years so thorough preparation is essential. Shorter lived varieties of hellebores such as Hellebore argutifolius and Hellebore foetidus will thrive on less preparation. Hellebore vesicarius demands warm, sunny, and well-drained conditions, while Hellebore lividus and to a lesser extent Hellebore x sternii are also different in requiring better drainage and more sunshine.
How To Grow Hellebores in Containers
Some varieties of hellebores are best grown in containers, others will take to containers well.
Helleborus lividus and Hellebore vesicarius are most conveniently grown in large pots; they can then be brought into the necessary frost protection in autumn and moved outside again in spring.
Helleborus x ballardiae, Hellebore x ericsmithi and Helleborus x sternii also make excellent plants for pots.
Helleborus hybridus and other species are less successful as they produce very extensive root growth and are also susceptible to rotting if water collects in the crown after watering. These plants not only look best in terracotta pots but allowing moisture to evaporate through the sides terracotta helps prevent waterlogging.
Drainage is crucial: crock the pots well and use a well-drained but rich compost such as John Innes Number Three with the addition of 25% grit, by volume. Top with 1/2in/12mm of grit after potting.
Water attentively during the growing season and feed regularly with any balanced liquid feed. Every year or two, remove the plant from its pot, scrape off some of the compost and replace it with fresh; after a few years in the same pot move the plant to a larger size.
Pests & Diseases
In general, hellebores are relatively trouble-free, but it pays to be aware of possible problems.
Aphids: A wide range of different aphids attack hellebores, including their very own species. They can be found inside the flower, this is often the first infestation of spring, on new and under old leaves. The first sign may be a patchy glossiness to the foliage from honeydew dripped down from flowers and foliage above, and a few empty white skins. Seedlings are also sometimes infested and growth may be slowed down as a result. Aphids also transmit virus diseases. A contact spray based on fatty acids is effective but needs careful application, a systemic insecticide needs less precise application but open flowers should not be sprayed or bees may be harmed.
Black death: A relatively recent, slightly mysterious, but highly destructive disease which shows as black foliage blotches bounded by leaf veins or by the veins in bracts. Black streaks may also be seen in flowers. A virus is the most likely culprit, in which case keeping aphids under control is a wise precaution. It may also be spread on secateurs. Digging up and burning infected plants is the only safe remedy, but in general, this disease is more common in large collections and in nurseries than in gardens.
Black spot: This is the most frequent and damaging of the diseases which infect hellebores. Black or brown blotches appear on the foliage, merging to create dead areas of the leaf; other parts of the plant turn yellow and much of the foliage and flowers may be damaged. Hellebore flowers can be devastated and a year’s display completely ruined. If the disease is present on the foliage, it is transferred to the emerging flower shoots as they grow through the leaves in winter. In some cases, buds may rot and the flower stems collapse.
Always more prevalent in warm wet conditions, removing much of the foliage of Hellebore hybridus and similar species in autumn greatly reduces the chances of infection of the flowers and the carry-over of disease. It usually pays to give two preventative sprays of a product containing mancozeb or myclobutanil, at two weekly intervals, both in the run-up to Christmas and again in the New Year.
This disease infects the taller caulescent species in a slightly different way. Often, it attacks the flowering stems at the base during the winter and the stems rot before they can mature. Lesions may sometimes also appear higher on the stems and the upper foliage can also be damaged. Spraying the base of the plant undoubtedly helps, and the prompt removal of stems immediately after flowering combined with spraying the base of the plant immediately afterward is usually effective.
Damping-off: Seedlings rot off at soil level and collapse. Caused by a variety of soil borne fungi, usually as a result of re-using old seed compost, also watering with water from a rain butt, badly compacted (and so waterlogged) compost, poor drainage under seed pots, or physical damage to the seedlings during pricking out. Avoid all these mistakes. Water with a copper fungicide at the first sign of trouble.
Mice: Mice can be troublesome in two ways. They can eat hundreds of seedlings in a single night and they also eat the buds and flowers of mature plants, often leaving distinctive neat piles of debris at the base of the plants. Traps, and a good cat, are the answers.
Slugs and snails: These pests have two modes of attack. Seedlings are devoured in their pots; covering the sown seed with sharp grit (and then a pot cover) is a good preventative and pellets or other control methods should be in place alongside the seed pots from the first. Slugs, and small snails, can also climb the plant and eat the buds and stamens; they are sometimes seen inside the pendulous flowers of Hellebore hybridus in wet spells. Flower damage is rarely extensive.
Smut: An uncommon disease, but sometimes seen in large collections. The leaf or flower stems split vertically to reveal black dust-like spores. There is no treatment, other than to carefully cut off and burn infected parts of plants.
Vine weevil: Increasingly common in many garden situations, mature garden plants usually tolerate infestation without revealing symptoms but vine weevil can be troublesome when plants are grown in pots for extended periods. Growth is poor, top growth may seem poorly anchored and may eventually simply break away from the roots when the grubs have eaten through the roots. Biological control is effective in consistently warm temperatures as is an insecticide containing imidacloprid.
Virus Apart from Black Death, the occasional virus symptoms are unusually shiny, stiff, and jaggedly toothed foliage combined with a general loss of vigor. Dig up and burn such plants.
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