A mildly controversial opinion

Read down for my comments about staged photos

I have decided I just can’t get excited about hellebores. The most common hellebore – Helleborus orientalis – in particular, but not exclusively so. Not in our conditions with its mild climate and the explosion of spring flowers we get before winter has even officially ended. I have seen them in colder climates and they are way more rewarding than here.

Orientalis as a garden plant just doesn’t spark joy for me

I have tried and so has Mark. I have mollycoddled them, replaced inferior performers with better selections, weeded out endless seedlings, scrupulously dead-headed them to reduce unwanted seeding and to hold the infestations of aphids at bay, removed unsightly foliage (it takes years for scruffy spent foliage to drop and decay of its own accord), given them compost, bought new selections and still they are underwhelming. Mark has raised many seedlings of controlled crosses to get cleaner colours and flower spikes that stand above the foliage and they can look very promising in nursery pots and very average in the garden.

I don’t know how many H. niger we have raised and planted out. It is the pretty, low-growing white with the upward-facing flowers held just on the foliage. It is a one season wonder for us. I was delighted with ‘Angel Glow’ but after three very pretty seasons, it has all but disappeared this year.

The temptation was too great. I floated flowers from the ‘Marbled Group’ but it is their all round performance as garden plants that impress.

They are not all without merit. I remain sold on the ‘Marbled Group’ from UK breeder, Rodney Davey. ‘Anna’s Red’ and ‘Penny’s Pink’ remain the best of that series in our garden but we also have ‘Molly’s White’, ‘Ruby Daydream’ and ‘Sophie’s Delight’. Just a word of warning: ‘Anna’s Red’ made a big and luscious plant so I thought I would divide it to use it further. It did not appreciate this treatment and has been slow to recover- as in a few years, not months. Mark informs me that hellebores do not generally like being dug and divided in the same way as other perennials. They can sulk somethin’ chronic.

Helleborus x sternii
Helleborus foetidus
Helleborus argutifolius

Helleborus x sternii is a mainstay in the woodland garden and very easy care. All it ever needs is the spent flower spikes removed at the end of the season. So too with H. argutifolius which is one of the parents of x sternii. H. foetidus is fine – more utility than exciting and it can spread a bit but it has interesting foliage. What these three have in common is that they all have green flowers but hold their flower spikes up above the foliage.

The staged photo of cut blooms shows they are individually pretty but I do not generally rate them as garden plants in our conditions

And therein lies the problem. There are many lovely staged photos of picked blooms arranged to face upwards. I have done a few myself. But that is not what they look like in the garden where H. orientalis is characterised by downward facing blooms. And as soon as one gets into the popular double blooms, the extra weight drags them over even further. Also, the interest in the dark slate colours – the deeper purplish-black the better – is based on picking a flower and looking at it facing upwards. As a garden plant with those dark flowers, they just tend to meld into the backgound. The best I can say is that orientalis opens a wider colour range than the other types we grow.

This sight sparks more delight for me than rather lacklustre H. orientalis – and comes at the same time of the season

While I am in awe at the far-reaching and long-standing enthusiasm that has made H. orientalis such a popular plant, they are best in cold climates which don’t have the same options we have. Colder, drier climates are even better. With calanthe orchids and Hippeastrum aulicum both in full bloom at the same time, I am not convinced that the utility hellebores that grow in similar conditions are worth more effort on my part. If you really want to grow them in softer climates like ours, keep them in a pot. They seem to perform better in controlled conditions. I don’t love them enough to give them that sort of special attention.

Yet another staged photo. I see I have done a few of these over the years.

13 thoughts on “A mildly controversial opinion

  1. robynkiltygardensnz

    I can quite see why Hellebores would seem underwhelming when you have such a delicious alternative – which I’m guessing would be frost free? It’s an Orchid of some sort I take it? And what is the flourishing red flower behind it?? You would never that sort of summery bright red flower growing outside in the south in winter! So when subtle Hellebores start to slowly unfurl in June/July amongst all that bare frosted brown everywhere, they are not only very welcome but thrilling! Even the ordinary H, orientalis! And they last for weeks flowering alongside the snowdrops and daffodils when they appear, in July and August bright and sharp against the muted discreet Hellebore.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      The pale yellow is indeed a calanthe orchid; the red is Hippeastrum aulicum. And yes, frost free conditions. I can see the hellebores would prefer your colder, drier conditions.

  2. tonytomeo

    It is not easy to admit disappointment with hellebores. I could barely mention that I was none too keen on growing them to the clients who purchased them. We grew common seedlings; but clients payed well for the few cultivars. I knew that wherever they went, they did not perform well. I have never seen them do well anywhere around here. Nonetheless, they were popular with particular types of landscape, along with a few other items that do not perform well here.

  3. newgarden513766902

    I agree with you Abbie. I have a few named mottled leaved ones up a bank. H. foetidus, H. argutifolius and H. x sternii did well and looked good all year under totaras on the farm. They made an attractive ground cover in very hard conditions. I would love to grow calanthe like those – they never seem to thrive for me—what is the secret?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I am not sure that there is a secret to growing calanthe beyond finding a favoured position and getting the first plants established. Ours get next to no attention but have just gently multiplied over the years.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    You know the old saying: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King”. robynkiltygardensnz has hit the nail on the head above – you have many other far more attractive and better-growing plants available to you while, here in Ireland and in other similar northern hemisphere countries the hellebore is the one-eyed king. It doesn’t have competition and so shines and we are delighted with it. This situation echoes a line in a monograph on snowdrops describing a favourite Irish snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Castlegar’, which flowers in the first week of December which goes along the lines that if it flowered during the main snowdrop season it wouldn’t earn a second look – it is a perfectly ordinary snowdrop but it flowers when there is little else to attract our eye.

  5. chris webb

    Hi Abbie
    An interesting article on the pros and cons of Helleborus
    I have found when growing them in Auckland and other frost free climates Terry Hatch’s plants do the best as Terry Has bred them for a warmer climate
    A question My understanding is that Helleborus Orientallis name was changed to Helleborus Hybridus some years ago,
    Do you know if this change occured.

  6. Tim Dutton

    Certainly pros and cons with Helleborus in the garden, but our climate isn’t as benign as yours and they are almost the only thing that will be in flower during winter here. We’ve planted a lot on steep banks so we can look at the flowers at eye level or from below, which is helping, even with those droopy doubles. We also have some of the darker reds positioned under tall trees so the early morning sun shines through them and they glow: the fact you can’t see into the flower doesn’t matter at all. I’ve grown a lot from seed this year, with a view to turfing out those that are inferior. I was very surprised that one seedling has flowered when it was less than a year old, I was expecting a 2 to 3 year wait. It is a good one too. We like the ‘Marbled Group’ too and have a few of them. And we’ve never managed to keep H. niger alive for very long either.
    They do look good floating in a bowl! We rarely bother though, and perhaps we should?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      That is the big difference. We have so many other options to light up winter days. I think niger needs it drier as well as colder.

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