Tag Archives: Helleborus orientalis

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.

Hellebore update

I meant to do a round-up across the different hellebore types we grow here this year but I left my run too late. There is more to hellebores than just the most common H. orientalis types and some of the other species and inter-species crosses are also interesting and fill a different niche in the garden. But I had to make do with mostly H. orientalis and a few hybrids for today’s picking.

Late season flowers, so not an accurate guide to the flower size and colour. Left to right: Anna’s Red, Penny’s Pink, Molly’s White, Ruby Daydream and Sophie’s Delight

We are very impressed by the garden performance of the hybrids from UK breeder, Rodney Davey and sold as his ‘Marbled Group’. So impressed have we been by ‘Anna’s Red’, ‘Penny’s Pink’ and ‘Molly’s White’, that we added ‘Ruby Daydream’ and ‘Sophie’s Delight’ this year. There are more in that range but whether they have come into New Zealand yet, I don’t know. All are characterised by excellent marbled foliage which is most appealing and outward facing flowers that sit above the foliage. The first three named above also appear to be sterile, which is a good thing as far as hellebores go. Many hellebores can be promiscuous seeders. The Davey group are a big improvement on many of the orientalis types. His hellebores are hybrids so have mixed species parentage but I haven’t seen the details of what he has used made public anywhere and we would never criticise him for keeping that information to himself. There are way too many people out there just waiting to copy, as we know to our own cost, and he has put many years of work into getting this new strain of hellebores. If you are in the market for hellebores, buy them.

The same can not be said for hellebores ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’. I bought them both last year because they looked terrific in the garden centre. Josef collapsed and died within weeks so I even bought a second plant because I liked it, despite them both setting frightening amounts of seed. This year – nothing. I know where I planted them but if they flowered again, it was so insignificant that I failed to register it and the plants that I think are them, are but poor specimens now. There is a big difference between having a brilliant looking hellebore in a pot and garden performance. This all makes more sense now that I realise they were H. niger, not H.orientalis  as I had earlier assumed, .

Look at the flower power of Angel Glow in the garden

‘Angel Glow’, bought at the same time, is a beaut. It is another hybrid and it has mass flowered two years in a row. If it keeps on doing as well, I will be delighted. The ever-handy internet tells me it is an H x ericsmithii selection which makes it a three way cross between niger (which gives it the upward facing blooms) and sternii which is itself a cross between argutifolius and lividus. I just give you that information in case you wanted to know. It makes it very different to H. orientalis but it fills a similar niche in the garden as a plant. The pretty H. niger is forever disappointing in our climate (I think it wants it drier and colder) but the hybrid vigour of ‘Angel Glow’ sets it apart from that parent.

The border was looking better this year

I redid our 30 metres of Helleborus orientalis border three years ago. After decades of easy care gardening, it had lost much of its charm. The next two years were a bit ho-hum in performance but it has come into its own this winter. Hellebores can take a little while to establish well. Most of the plants I used were ones Mark has raised in his quest for better garden performance – so with longer stems of sufficient strength to hold the blooms above the foliage and with outward facing flowers.  We have a fair old mix of established shrubs in the border so keeping the underplanting primarily to hellebores gives it a certain unity. But I also added a whole array of odds and sods in bulbs – mixed dwarf narcissi, snowdrops, cyclamen and bluebells in the main but also other strays that would perform in semi shade. It adds another layer of interest through winter and spring and it has been very pretty this year.

The slate shades can look better picked than in the garden…

… but add white and the contrast makes them sing

Mark is not keen on murky pinks, is scathing about most green flowers and doesn’t like pink and green colour mixes so most of his seedlings are either red or white. We had also been given some of the newer slate colours and have a few doubles carried over from when they were the rage. The slates are a really curious shade when you look at them closely but that colour tends to be quite flat and dead in a garden situation unless surrounded by plenty of white. The plants we have all hang their heads, too (downward facing flowers). This is also true of the double hellebores – the weight of the flowers makes them downward facing, which is not so great in a flat border.

There is quite a bit of trial and error on garden performance with H. orientalis. When they are good, they are very, very good. When they are not, they can be disappointing, even more so if you have gone out and paid garden centre prices for a plant that looked great at time of purchase but never as good again. And it is not so much a gap as a gulf between a good hellebore and a very ordinary seedling one.

Tikorangi notes: hellebores (again), fallen tree (another one), the daffodil show and Heart of Darkness

Hellebore Anna's Pink

Hellebore Anna’s Pink

In the garden, I have been slogging my way along the hellebore border removing pretty well all the old plants and replacing them with Mark’s hybrids which he has been cultivating in the nursery. I mentioned how much the border has gone back in an earlier post. What is interesting is how many clumps I am digging up which have only one or two leaves but below ground is a chunky mat of dormant eyes. I say dormant, not blind, because it appears that if these were divided up and put into good conditions, most eyes would sprout into a fresh plant. It must be what happens to hellebores over time and this border has not had a major rework in 30 years.

A multitude of dormant growing tips on hellebores with only a leaf or two showing above

A multitude of dormant growing points on hellebores with only a leaf or two showing above

I watched a debate on a UK gardening site about whether hellebore seedlings are worth saving and, as an aside, references to never digging and dividing anything. Hmmm… all I can say from our experience is that self-sown Helleborus orientalis seedlings are not worth keeping. There are huge numbers of them, for these are promiscuous plants, and the vast majority will revert to murky colours. I am deadheading as I replant and will continue to deadhead hellebores because we don’t want the seedlings. The chances of a brilliant self-sown seedling are remote whereas controlled crosses are hugely more successful. Mark has been working to get strains which hold their flowers up high and are sometimes outward facing which obviously improves the display.

As an aside, it appears that the new releases from the UK – Anna’s Red and Anna’s Pink – are both sterile which is to their credit. Not only do the blooms last longer, but this eliminates the need to deadhead and weed out seedlings. They are worth buying.

When it comes to digging and dividing perennials, I would comment that you can only get so far if you refuse to dig and divide. Over time the thugs take over and eventually you get to a point where even they start to go back. Feeding alone is not enough. It is the below ground root competition that takes its toll. You can go a decade or two without digging and dividing anything, depending on the plants you are using, but the treasures are likely to have given up the ghost by then. There will come a time when you will look around and think “this used to look so much better”. We think about ten years is all we can expect of the hellebore border before it will need major work again but an easy-care nine years is good.
IMG_4575The latest natural garden feature arrived last week as the dead Pinus radiata we refer to as Glenys’s tree snapped off, fortunately leaving the lower few metres intact so we hope Glenys the Gecko will remain in residence. As is our practice, we will clean up the paths and damage but leave the body of the trunk in situ and garden around it.
IMG_4579I am pretty sure that the next tree in the row is developing a bigger lean and will likely fall sooner rather than later, but Mark is unconvinced. I like to remind him that I was right last time and those were smaller, younger trees. This leaning tower of Pinus radiata is probably 45 metres tall so we have to wait for nature to take its course.
IMG_4792We went to the North Island daffodil show last Saturday. There is a larger album of photos posted on our Garden Facebook page. There is no denying that our personal tastes lie with the less celebrated dwarf and miniature varieties which I have been systematically photographing this season. We are all about garden varieties, not show blooms. But like any genus of show blooms, the breeding directions are unveiled in a major display – lots of split coronas, colour combinations and pinks still coming through.

I decided we should be sourcing the dwarf hybrid named ‘Rapture’, the white N. cantabricus (which looks very similar to a bulbocodium) and I really would like some N. poeticus even if we have to go to poeticus hybrids. But, I was as much delighted by the whole event. The stalls! The competitions! I think these were the result of the involvement of the local branch of the horticultural society. Truly, I did not realise that the craft of crocheting edges to pictorial tea towels is not only alive and well, but also a competitive activity.
IMG_4790Nothing to do with gardening, but I still have a strong mental image of an acquaintance many years ago, earnestly crocheting aqua coloured edges to white face cloths. “I think it is nice for guests to have special face cloths,” she said with a high degree of self-satisfaction. I looked around her home – a large and cavernous turn-of-last-century villa which had been cut in pieces and relocated but not restored. The walls were scrim, the facilities and decor still more or less original. It was truly grim. And I thought to myself, you poor woman. You think guests won’t notice the surrounds if they have new face cloths? It was all so evocative of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, where the rituals of civilisation are all that keeps the chaotic universe at bay and without those, what is left is “the horror, the horror”. It had the makings of a short story, but instead I became a garden writer.

Next Tikorangi Notes may bring you an insight into the lost art of waxing camellias which, I have only recently found, is not a lost art at all but almost certainly sits alongside pictorial tea towels with hand crocheted edges.

And because we are at Peak Magnolia, here is Milky Way

And because we are at Peak Magnolia, here is Milky Way

Pretty hellebores

IMG_3914Sunday was wet and gloomy so I picked hellebores to photograph indoors. And what a wonderful subject for photography they are. All I did was collect one representative bloom from a number of plants. This was more illustrative in intention than artistic endeavour.


Too often the reality of the hellebore plant can look like this

Too often the reality of the hellebore plant can look like this

These are all H. orientalis or orientalis hybrids, a mix of plants in the garden and some selections Mark has raised. We have been talking about them recently because our main 30 metre hellebore border is in dire need of major work. It has passed over from being a pretty, low maintenance area to being patchy and underperforming with too few blooms and too many of those are murky colours. We plan to gut it, replace some of the soil and replant with strong, new plants – each standing in its own space rather than aiming for the uninterrupted carpet look. This is because we have noticed that the plants we have thriving in other areas are in well cultivated soil, each on its own and not competing with its neighbours for space. We will fill the gaps between bulbs – Cyclamen hederafolium, narcissi and bluebells all combine well with hellebores.

IMG_3896Mark has been raising hellebores in the nursery, in preparation for the upgrade. And he is interested in whether he can get better performing selections for our conditions. Generally, hellebores like a colder climate and the best ones we have seen are in areas with much more winter chill. The very dark flowered ones with bluish tones – referred to as slate – are not exactly booming here. Similarly, the doubles that we, and every other keen gardener at the time, rushed to purchase don’t seem to get much larger and showier than they were when we bought them over a decade ago. Mark’s seedlings may perform better though the wonderfully large pink with petaloids is probably blown up by nursery conditions. In the garden, the flowers may scale down.

The merits of longer stems

The merits of longer stems

What he is most keen on is getting strong stems which hold the flowers above the foliage. So far, that seems to be one of the most desirable features of the recent releases out of the UK – Anna’s Red and Anna’s Pink. They display their blooms well. Because the reality is that when you pick hellebores and display them face up, they are hugely charming as seen in photos. But more often, they are nodding downwards and barely visible in the garden. You could of course follow the lead of a hellebore enthusiast we once met who had a mirror on a long pole so he could view the flowers without bending. Or you could glue mirrors to your shoes – but take care, gentlemen, never to wear such footwear to town lest the reason for the mirrors be misconstrued.
IMG_3909We have worked out that the desirable dark colours display far better as garden plants with the contrast of white flowers alongside. We will also banish all the murky ones to the compost heap. While clean pastel pink and green can be a charming combination, in hellebores these often lean to muted shades which are frankly of no merit. We also want plants that will fade gracefully and not to that dirty greenish brown which does not lift the soul.

We would like the hellebore border to shine again with the gentle charm that this plant family offers.

Earlier posts about hellebores include:
Hellebore Anna’s Red
The autumn trim (removing all the old foliage)
Helleborus x sternii – one of the few green flowers Mark is happy to accommodate here.
The double hellebores.

Garden lore – the autumn trim of the hellebores

???????????????????????????????I am cutting all the old foliage off the Helleborus orientalis and I am pleased I have my timing right. Few plants are putting out their new foliage yet. We never used to do this. Indeed, for decades, the main hellebore border (about 30 metres long) was just left to its own devices. Then I read about NZ hellebore expert, Terry Hatch, cutting off all the foliage – even putting a lawnmower through them, though you would have to get your timing absolutely right to carry out this approach.

I tried it and the hellebore display was hugely more charming in winter because the flowers were visible and the fresh foliage was light and bright. It also gave more light to bulbs beneath the plants and cleared out the aphid infestations we can get in the foliage. While about it, I weed out the multitudes of seedlings we get beneath. We do not need yet more hellebores in this area which is already quite congested.

Last year, Mark demurred. He wondered if cutting off all the foliage from evergreen plants would weaken them over time. Fortunately, when we headed over to England on our summer garden trip, we stayed with a new friend. Diana is one of those wonderful English gardeners – an amateur enthusiast but with a specific technical knowledge allied to practical experience which exceeds that of many professionals. We were happy to accept her opinion and indeed she does clean off all the old foliage.

I get dirty knees and do it all with grape snips. One year we tried putting the strimmer or weedeater over the bed. While it was speedy, I didn’t like the chewed stems it left and it didn’t do the weeding either. The trick is all in the timing. Leave it much later and it takes much longer because it involves trimming carefully around fresh new growth. The rewards will come in a few weeks because I can see fresh growth and flower stems starting to push through. We used to follow up with a compost mulch but the soil is now so rich in humus that this is no longer necessary.

I only carry out this extreme trimming on H. orientalis. The other species we grow just need an occasional trim of spent stems.