Gardens can look very bare in the winter months, but there are some wonderful winter-flowering plants, and hellebores are some of the best. They are very long-flowering, and look wonderful with snowdrops and evergreen ferns, which enjoy the same conditions, and it’s really worth setting aside a partially shaded corner for them, even in small gardens, to brighten this dismal time of year. If you have room for a winter-flowering deciduous shrub or small tree, many hellebores, ferns and some bulbs do really well planted underneath them. Plant hellebores within view of the house, go out to look at their exquisite blooms on mild days, and pick a few for the house – the flower-heads are really pretty floated in a bowl of water.
One of the great things about hellebores is that their foliage is not just handsome but evergreen, giving year-round structure and good ground cover. And when the flowers appear, they are not only beautiful, but an excellent nectar- and pollen-source for early-emerging pollinators. Most people know the Lenten Rose, but there are lots of other species and hybrids to consider, including the Corsican hellebore, which prefers more sun, the tender Majorcan hellebore, the unjustly named stinking hellebore, the Eric Smith and Stern hybrids and, of course, the ethereally beautiful Christmas rose.
All hellebores like a fertile, humus-rich, moist but well-drained, alkaline to neutral soil – they don’t like a very acid soil – and all prefer a sheltered site. Generally, they like dappled shade, or partial shade with sun for part of the day. Corsican hellebores and the Eric Smith hybrids do well in full sun if the soil is reliably moist, and Christmas roses need exceptionally good drainage in winter. The Majorcan hellebore and Stern’s hybrid hellebore are quite tender, and except in the mildest areas should be grown in a deep pot and brought into a cool greenhouse or conservatory for the winter.
Lenten roses or oriental hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus) are substantial, tough, very hardy plants, easy to grow and long-lived. The handsome, leathery, ‘fingered’ leaves are deep, glossy green. They come in shades of primrose, white, pink, green, slate and rich plum, the paler colours often delicately freckled within. Plum-coloured ones look brilliant with Japanese painted fern (which prefers full shade) and Cyclamen coum or little pink chionodoxas; primrose and green ones are lovely with grape hyacinths, and they all look lovely with snowdrops, especially the larger ones. Lenten roses in the Lady series are a little smaller, semi-evergreen in colder areas, but good colonisers, and come in a wide range of colours. The Pretty Anna series are also slightly smaller, and you can choose the colour you want, rich pink, freckled white or double forms, with flowers held above the foliage. For a really compact hellebore, try ViV Victoria, with reddish-purple flowers and cream stamens; it will do well in a deep pot.
They are very deep-rooted plants that don’t transplant well, so choose your site carefully. The leaves can look a bit battered by late autumn, and can sometimes conceal the flowers, so cut them off just before they flower (January to April) to appreciate the fresh new leaves and flowers. They self-sow, although they don’t come true from seed – but who knows, you might get one even better than its parent! They are particularly good on banks, where you can look up into the nodding flowers.
Other hellebores are not so long-lived. The stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) doesn’t smell in the least unpleasant unless you crush the leaves, and it has the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for its many virtues. It has very dark green, ‘fingered’ leaves and produces stems of lovely apple-green flowers with a narrow wine-coloured margin from December to March. It tolerates deeper shade and drier soil than most hellebores, so it’s good for under-planting deciduous trees and shrubs, or those dark, dry corners where not much else will grow. It looks wonderful with lighter-coloured evergreen ferns and snowdrops, and perhaps grape hyacinths. ‘Wester Flisk’, with red stems, is a good cultivar.
The Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius AGM) is a really handsome beast at 2’ x 3’, and likes light shade; it’s tolerant of full sun in moisture-retentive soil, but it does need shelter from wind.
It has light mid-green leaves divided into three serrated leaflets and produces stems of apple-green, open flowers from February to April. If it’s planted in full sun, yellow and purple crocuses or intensely blue scillas would look stunning with it, or the unfortunately-named Anemone coronaria Mr Fokker; in partial shade, try larger snowdrops. The evergreen foliage sets off later perennials very well.
The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a smaller plant, just 1’ high and 18” wide, with the most beautiful, large white flowers, sometimes flushed pink, from late December to March. The lovely foliage is divided, and a good, glossy, deep green. It’s fussier about conditions than the tougher hellebores, needing very well-drained soil in winter; though hardy, it will not survive winter with wet feet. It does best in sheltered, partial shade, in cool, moist humus-rich, soil, with a mulch of well-rotted manure or compost in late autumn. It’s particularly good with snowdrops and evergreen ferns. If your soil lies wet in winter, grow it in a raised bed or in a pot in gritty, rich compost and give it shelter in winter.
The Majorcan hellebore (Helleborus lividus) is tender, and will not cope with winter cold and wet. It likes a site in cool, light shade, but it’s small (18” x 18”) enough to be grown in a pot and sheltered in a cool greenhouse or conservatory in winter. It’s worth it for hellebore enthusiasts, as the evergreen leaves are beautiful, blue-grey-green with silvery veins and wine-coloured backs, and pink-flushed, pale green flowers are borne in late winter and early spring.
The cultivar White Marble is similar, but with lovely, white-marbled leaves. Majorcan hellebores can be grown outside in the very mildest areas, in the protection of deciduous trees, and look lovely with delicate single snowdrops.
Stern’s hybrid hellebore (Helleborus x sternii) is a bit tougher, but is still only borderline hardy. It tolerates full sun in reliably moist soil, but still needs a sheltered site. With similar leaves to the Christmas rose but with pale veins, it has lovely, nodding, creamy-green flowers flushed pink-purple from late winter to mid-spring. The cultivar Silver Dollar has beautiful, silvery-green, jagged-edged leaves and creamy-green cup-shaped flowers. Stern’s hellebore, too, can be grown in a pot and taken into a cool greenhouse for the winter.
The small Eric Smith hybrids (Helleborus x ericsmithii) are hardy, liking similar conditions to other garden hellebores, but tolerating full sun in moist soil. They have glossy, toothed, olive-green leaves with pale veins and a metallic sheen, and large, creamy-white flowers which age to pink.
How to plant
For the hardy hellebores, choose a sheltered site in light or dappled shade, with sun for part of the day, although stinking hellebore will tolerate quite deep shade, and Corsican and Eric Smith hybrids will tolerate full sun in moist soil. Soil should be rich, reliably moist but well-drained, and humus-rich, so improve the site with good garden compost or manure before digging your planting hole. (If you’re planting snowdrops as well, remember that they dislike manure and compost, preferring leaf-mould.)
If planting small hellebores, space them about 18” apart; Corsican hellebores need to be 3’ apart, stinking hellebores and Lenten roses 2’ apart. Don’t plant deeply – just to the soil level in the pot – water in well, and give a well-rotted compost or manure mulch, which should not touch the plant’s stem.
Water well in the first year until the plants establish. Fertiliser is not necessary if hellebores are given an annual mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost each spring.
Damaged or diseased leaves should be removed in late autumn or early winter, before the flower buds appear; you can cut away all the leaves in the case of Lenten roses.
The flowering stems of Corsican, stinking and Majorcan hellebores and the Stern’s and Eric Smith hybrids should be pruned out when the flowers go over. This improves flowering the following year and extends the life of the plant; it also minimises self-sowing, to which Corsican and stinking hellebores in particular are incontinently prone. Stem-less species like the Christmas and Lenten roses can be deadheaded if you want to avoid self-seeding.
Potted hellebores should be potted on into a slightly bigger pot with fertile soil-based compost every two years. Don’t let pots dry out, and give a liquid tomato feed regularly to encourage flowering.