by Gail Kavanagh
Do you want the pleasure of a garden in bloom all year round, even in winter? Look no further than the hellebore, a 3000 year old flowering plant known as the Winter Rose. In Asia, where it originated, the roots were dried and ground to be used as a medicine, but no herbalist would recommend this today as hellebore root is toxic. But as a color feature in the garden, especially in the shady but bare areas beneath trees, hellebore is unsurpassed.
The evergreen shrubs come in several different varieties to suit any purpose, but all share a fairly tolerant nature. Hellebores don’t need much pruning, are happy in places that don’t get much sun and are easy to propagate by dividing the clumps after the flowering season. Just make sure you wear protective gloves in case your skin is sensitive to the roots.
The most common species of hellebore are Helleborus Orientalis and Helleborus Niger. These are also known, respectively, as the Lenten and the Christmas Rose because of their flowering times.
The Lenten Rose, or Helleborus Orientalis, is a compact plant producing large flowers around Easter. The variety of blooms is spectacular; some are soft purple and pink, others are white and green; some are spotted with red; some are striped with other shades. The flowers are good for cutting and look stunning in a vase or flower arrangement. Being such a hardy plant, they will last as cut flowers for a week, especially if you dip the stems in boiling water before arranging them.
The Christmas Rose, or Helleborus Niger, is the one that gives fresh white flowers in the heart of winter, perfect for Christmas decorating. It needs more care than the Lenten Rose, which is a far more hardy plant. But added to these two basic varieties are newer hybrids, which have an even wider variety of color, and a wider range of types suitable for different conditions. One variety, known as Honeyhill Joy, is Helleborus Niger and Corsican Hellebore hybrid, and performs well in cold weather, providing blooms from midwinter into spring.
Traditionally, Hellebores love cool, moist conditions, and need extra care during the summer. For older varieties, plenty of shade is a must, and they need to be kept moist and well mulched to stop the soil around them drying out. But there are newer hybrids, like H.xballardiae which are more tolerant to hot climates. It is always worthwhile to shop around, and discuss with your local plant expert what varieties you can cultivate in your planting zone.
Hellebores can be propagated by seeds as well as clump division, Sometimes you will notice seed pods forming in the center of the flowers. You can catch these seeds by putting a paper bag over the flower, and use them to propagate more plants. However, the plants grown from seed will take several years to flower, so the method of dividing the clumps is better if you don’t want to wait that long.
You don’t have to fuss over hellebores as long as they are happy where they are planted. If they thrive, they are happy, and will flower profusely with little attention required. There will always be a welcome spot of color in the garden, as well as a regular supply of glorious cut flowers for the home.