Hellebores: a tale of lost innocence?

Elaine

Did you know the latest fad (you know I like to be bang on trend) is to have freckles tattooed over your nose? I hated mine when I was young and now that they’ve morphed into the liver spots of advancing age, they’re the reason I try to keep my hat and shirt on (mostly). However, freckles are looking fabulous right here, right now…. inside a hellebore.
I have a huge range from the glowing chartreuse green of tall Helleborus argutifolius to the dark sultry opalescence of the H.orientalis varieties. They are nothing short of a February miracle (just like Louise’s Great Plant this Month – and what a fabulous eye she has for planting combinations).

Hellebore orientalis

But my favourite hellebores are the pale freckly ones. Turn up each modestly-dropped flower-head and it’s preciously pretty.  The charming ‘petals’ are actually sepals (the real petals are the tiny bits forming a circle in the middle). It’s why they don’t drop off as petals would, but last for weeks going elegantly green around the developing seeds. Remember to cut off the leaves of these orientalis cultivars in November before they go black and manky and spoil the look of the emerging flower-stems.
There are dozens of species of hellebore – all pretty poisonous by the way (‘harmful to eat’ is the translation from the Greek, so no nibbling). For once, our own native H.foetidus is one of the loveliest.  It’s not a  pretty name (although ‘fetid’ is a tremendously satisfying word and apt when contemplating a teenager’s bedroom or Owen Farrell’s jockstrap).  In fact, this delightful plant only pongs if you crush the leathery leaves – rarely a temptation.  It grows 2-3 feet tall, and carries its flowers of pale green bells edged in maroon for weeks through the early spring.
What a shame though that commercial growers are hybridising hellebores at a rate of knots – I don’t like all those new double varieties around now – sorry, very clever and all that, but not for me.

Laura

For once I agree with Elaine. Hellebores are such a top drawer plant it was only a matter of time before the plant breeders started to capitalise on their assets – I can almost hear Dragon’s Den doyen Deborah Meaden demanding diversification of the product range and scaling up to maximise returns.
The plant breeders struggled initially as hellebores take two or three years to flower from seed and were then difficult to divide. So for a while the best they could manage were improved seed strains (such as ‘Ballard’ and ‘Ashwood’ ) produced by continually crossing plants with good traits and cross-pollinating various species to produce seeds which gave a greater colour range and more upturned flower heads.

‘Anna’s Red’ – in your face beefiness

But recently the breeding programme has advanced and they’re able to cross smaller, leathery-leaved species such as the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger ) with their taller H.orientalis cousins producing much more muscular plants. These can now be micro-propagated to give endless identical clones which sell for the type of money that would keep a whole den of Dragons in champagne and caviar.
Some of these new varieties are amazing, ‘Anna’s Red’ for  example, but they are a world away from the shy, freckled beauties with their gentle nodding heads that Elaine has described and I can’t help thinking that in the plant breeders quest to milk and monetise their attributes hellebores have, a bit like One Direction, lost their charm and innocence along the way.

Caroline

What a moan Laura and Elaine are. It’s all, ‘I used to buy x, y and z and still get change from a ten bob note’. They do wallow around in yesteryear sometimes.
Personally I’m not too bothered about the purity of the broodstock, or whether nurseries benefit from economies of scale. And truthfully not all the single hellebores are knock-out anyway. I bought H. ‘Angel Glow’ (attracted by the ‘scaled up’ number of buds actually, to show you just how shallow I am), but now it’s in flower it looks like a Poundland table decoration.
Now some of those new doubles are gorgeous – look up H. ‘Double Maroon’ or ‘Onyx Oddysey’, they’re sexy beyond belief. And despite her disdain for doubles, Laura recently spent an eye watering sum on a ‘Harvington Double Red’ which I notice she isn’t owning up to.

H. ‘Harvington Double Red’ – Laura’s guilty pleasure

No, no, have a go at some of those new dark doubles I say – they give modern heft in your garden at a time when everything else is still rather cold and feeble.
A few growing notes: hellebores prefer neutral soil, so dig in a little lime to an acidic bed. They like slightly moist but free-draining conditions in dappled shade, but they’ll grow pretty much anywhere if you compensate by adding compost or leafmould to the soil and keep them damp-ish in summer, (I sound knowledgable like L and E, but actually this is just what I’ve read).
Hellebores do well in Scotland. Like so many plants here they are thought to ward off  evil spirits but after delivering Donald Trump to the world (his mum was Scottish) and with Indyref2 in prospect, we clearly need to be growing more.

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9 Comments

  1. Hello Growbags

    Any planting ideas for us urban dwellers reduced to a window box or 2 and a wee tub at the Front door. You blog has inspired me beyond my solitary geranium and her chum – ivy ?

    Many thanks

    Sarah. Edinburgh

    1. Caroline here. Sarah, thank you so much for this. You know we’re all bonkers so stand by for some unorthodox advice.I think mine’s a winner:
      For the window-box you won’t want too much height. I’d grow Golden Creeping Jenny (lysimachia mummularia ‘aurea’) around the edges – lovely lime green tendrils will tumble down the sides. + bugle (Ajuga reptans) dark purple foliage and loved by bees + Begonia ‘Golden Embers’ small dark foliage and brilliant orange flowers that bloom ALL SUMMER LONG. Dramatic colour combination – lime green, purple and orange; will flower forever and bring some lovely bees to your windows. Think I will plant one up myself!
      Hi, this is Elaine. Not bad, Caroline, but, Sarah, much depends on whether your window-box is in sun or shade. If the answer is sun, then what about something edible as well as decorative? Nasturtiums are insanely easy to grow – just push some seeds into the soil round about now – they look lovely and both flowers and leaves taste delicious in summer salads. Pop some chilli plants in to join the party and plant some heliochrysum petiolare (don’t chomp this one, though!) round the edge, where its trailing silver foliage will complement the bright colours. The nicest window box for shade that I ever saw was a gorgeous collection of ferns.
      And now Laura. Sarah, it is frankly amazing but both my sisters have come up with very good suggestions for your window box dilemma!
      The thing that crosses my mind though is that the contents of window boxes, like hanging baskets, soon shrivel up unless regularly watered, so if global warming properly takes hold this summer you are making a rod for your own back with all these nasturtiums and begonias to water. So you could try some succulents, which store their own water in their fleshy stems so won’t mind if you flounce off on holiday for three weeks in August. Echiverias are my personal favourites; there is a range to choose from and they don’t seem too fussy about sun or shade.

  2. Hello Growbags

    Any planting ideas for us urban dwellers reduced to a window box or 2 and a wee tub at the Front door. You blog has inspired me beyond my solitary geranium and her chum – ivy ?

    Many thanks

    Sarah. Edinburgh

    1. Caroline here. Sarah, thank you so much for this. You know we’re all bonkers so stand by for some unorthodox advice.I think mine’s a winner:
      For the window-box you won’t want too much height. I’d grow Golden Creeping Jenny (lysimachia mummularia ‘aurea’) around the edges – lovely lime green tendrils will tumble down the sides. + bugle (Ajuga reptans) dark purple foliage and loved by bees + Begonia ‘Golden Embers’ small dark foliage and brilliant orange flowers that bloom ALL SUMMER LONG. Dramatic colour combination – lime green, purple and orange; will flower forever and bring some lovely bees to your windows. Think I will plant one up myself!
      Hi, this is Elaine. Not bad, Caroline, but, Sarah, much depends on whether your window-box is in sun or shade. If the answer is sun, then what about something edible as well as decorative? Nasturtiums are insanely easy to grow – just push some seeds into the soil round about now – they look lovely and both flowers and leaves taste delicious in summer salads. Pop some chilli plants in to join the party and plant some heliochrysum petiolare (don’t chomp this one, though!) round the edge, where its trailing silver foliage will complement the bright colours. The nicest window box for shade that I ever saw was a gorgeous collection of ferns.
      And now Laura. Sarah, it is frankly amazing but both my sisters have come up with very good suggestions for your window box dilemma!
      The thing that crosses my mind though is that the contents of window boxes, like hanging baskets, soon shrivel up unless regularly watered, so if global warming properly takes hold this summer you are making a rod for your own back with all these nasturtiums and begonias to water. So you could try some succulents, which store their own water in their fleshy stems so won’t mind if you flounce off on holiday for three weeks in August. Echiverias are my personal favourites; there is a range to choose from and they don’t seem too fussy about sun or shade.

  3. I have to say, seeing these pictures of your magnificent gardens in “spring” makes me feel sad, and massively inadequate. My garden doesn’t look remotely like that. We have crocuses, snowdrops, and one hellebore, of indeterminate variety, grown from bird seed. Daffys are several weeks away. When Miss Rhamshackle writes about Scotland, or her sisters write about their magnificent gardens in England, it would be kind of them to indicate that a) she is in the Far South of Scotland, and b) they are writing from the Tropics! Please to spare a thought for life further north, which is very different. But we do try harder… (Still enjoy reading of life on another plant planet)

    1. Janet, Miss Ramshackle-Growbag here how lovely to hear from you up there but your claims can’t be true. I was in awe of your garden when you showed me around it 25 years ago – what happened? And is it actually possible to grow a hellebore from birdseed? You raise a good point. The girls have an easy horticultural life of it in the south but believe me gardening here on the Firth of Forth is not for the squeamish. I’ll make sure I keep the flag flying for the ‘wind resistant, fully hardy, ‘balls of steel’ plants in future Janet, spurred on by your message. Thank you so much for reading our blog and for posting a comment- we really appreciate it. xxx
      PS None of us can grow meconopsis like you can up there – isn’t this sufficient compensation?

      1. The birdseed plant arrived, uninvited, in my sister in law’s garden and was forwarded to our garden for further observation and identification. With those distinctive leaves, we did hope it might be rather more exciting, or perhaps even intoxicating, but sadly it is thriving, in a very boring middle class sort of way, as a hellebore with green flowers. Delightful, I suppose. (I hadn’t thought of seeking compensation in mecanopsis. Will try harder.)

        1. Yes exactly, if you feel ‘massively inadequate’ there is really no hope for the rest of us Janet. I don’t think you need to try harder, you could just cheat. While I refused to buy hellebores being purveyed as ‘jumbo plugs’ (even I found that offensive) generally, unlike the other two, there are no depths of horticultural depravity to which I won’t stoop, and this strategy could suit you well too.

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