Helleborus orientalis – quiet and undemanding stars of winter
Hellebores are quiet heroes in the winter garden. I have never seen a strident one. By far the most common hellebore is H. orientalis – though it is not from the Orient, being native to northern Turkey and Greece. It is a perennial which keeps its leaves all year round but in our experience it is not one that appreciates being dug and divided. Plants subjected to this routine can sulk for a long time afterwards. You are better to salvage some of the many seedlings you get around plants if you want more.
Given their origins, it is not surprising that these plants are happy to lead their quiet existence in fairly tough conditions, coping with root competition and shallow soils. This makes them ideal for semi shaded, dry areas beneath trees where it is not always easy to find suitable plants. However, they won’t appreciate dense shade. Lift the canopy of overhanging trees and shrubs to get more light.
Most hellebores come in shades of dusky pinks, reds, greens and white – or sometimes in blends of these colours and they often change colour with age. There are some highly desirable deep red and slate colours – the latter bringing blue-purple tones. However the performance of these appears to be temperature related. The colder your conditions (and these are cold hardy plants), the better colour you will get. The best ones we have seen were in Taupo and the UK where winters are considerably chillier.
If you have prized cultivars, keep them separate if you are hoping to raise seedlings. They are promiscuous plants and will cross readily. That said, to my mind, hellebores look best in big patches or drifts. Interplant with winter and early spring bulbs (bluebells, snowdrops, smaller growing daffodils are our preferences) to add interest.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.
Helleborus orientalis - gentle and understated garden performers
- Winter flowering.
- Require very little care and maintenance.
- An undemanding plant for filling spaces.
- Very hardy evergreen.
Helleborus orientalis are not from the exotic Orient. In fact they are native to areas of Turkey and Greece which may explain their tough constitution. They are often called winter roses, presumably because they flower in winter and are easy to grow. Their link to roses is as remote as their link to the Orient. They are an enormously obliging and gently understated plant, with pretty cup flowers which face downwards. These are not plants for deep shade – keep them to the margins of bush or woodland or even the open because they need reasonable light levels and can cope with full sun. Easy-care plant and leave specimens, they don’t appreciate being lifted and divided but are happy to be left to their own devices with the occasional feed.
There has been an explosion of different hellebore cultivars on the market in recent years, many of them orientalis hybrids. Some of the frilly doubles are very pretty, some are just average doubles. The really good dark maroon and slate colours will be better if you live inland and can give colder conditions. The simplest seedling forms are just single flowers in shades of pink, white and green, with or without freckles on the inside. Floating blooms in a glass bowl is the usual method of displaying them once cut.
Helleborus orientalis sets seed freely but the seed will not come true to its parent and you will get considerable variation. Push hoe or weed out surplus germinating seed to prevent too much competition. Aphids can make the spent flower head their home so it is often advisable to deadhead once at the end of the flowering season in spring. We cut off all the old foliage in mid autumn which gets rid of any lingering aphids and also exposes the pretty flowers to view before the fresh foliage appears.