Much of the discussion in gardening circles is about ‘season of interest’ as in, how much bang for your buck do you get with certain plants? How long do they flower for and how long do they look good for? Many of the cool new plants don’t stay cool for long if they don’t have a long season of interest.
It seems fair to say that Hellebores have one of the longest seasons of interest but yet are overlooked in most gardens.
Firstly, there is lots to like; the range of colours and flower shapes are mightily varied, single flowers, double flowers, semi-double – endless choice and that’s before you start on the flower colours – apricot, white, sunshine yellow, dusky greys, almost black, rose, pearl, purple, bi-coloured, an almost eternal choice for gardeners. Couple that with how easy these plants are to grow and you have a winning combination, yet many gardens only use them in a very limited fashion.
The genus Helleborus consists of over 20 species of perennial flowering plants. This is a tribe that is rich and varied and hugely valuable in the garden. From the list of species there are some superb species, mostly found in the wild in open woodland, they include Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica and Sardinia with fantastic evergreen foliage and sap green leaves, also featured are Helleborus thibetanus which comes from China and is beautiful, rare and difficult to find. The biggest grouping however are the Helleborus x orientalis crosses. These are the hellebores we see in the local garden centres in spring. All are derived from crosses between Helleborus orientalis and a selection of other species. It is from these crosses that all of the wide range of colours and varied flower shapes are derived.
Hellebores are supremely rewarding to grow, they are tolerant of many soils, generally pest free, will grow in shade or sun and live for years and years. Mine grow is an open border with lots of spring flowering shrubs close by. My soil is free draining clay and I grow them with snowdrops, cyclamen and early flowering perennials such as Pachypragma macrophylla itself one of the most under-utilised spring plants.
The trick with hellebores is in the feeding, young plants need watering in their first summer and crucially, if they are to flower well the following spring, a good feed of farmyard manure in May when they are in active growth and preparing next years flowers. Maintenance is simple, cut back all the leaves to the base in late December taking care not to damage the emerging flowers. Once in flower in February they will continue to flower into late April and into May. Once you reach June all the spent flowers are removed from the base and the plant neatly finishes the rest of the year as an evergreen, elegant filler plant. In spring you can look through the short days of January until the first flowers appear and beckon bees into their ruffled chalices once again.
I’m not usually one for platitudes but if I were to begin with Hellebores I would most definitely look at Ashwood Nurseries in the UK who are the best in the business and have a mouthwatering selection of plants that will grace any spring garden beautifully. So, take the plunge and try one of the most underused plants you can easily get. You can never have too many!