How to grow hellebores

Val Bourne / 27 January 2017

Find out how to grow hellebores for late winter and early spring flower.



Hellebores flower during late winter and spring and they have a long-lasting presence because the things that look like soft petals are in fact rugged sepals.

Long after the blooms fade (and the nectaries and stamens drop) the sepals remain in place lasting until early May. So they are a staple of the spring garden rubbing shoulders with snowdrops and lasting until the tulips fade.

The spring flowers are also very bee friendly, sustaining early bees fresh out of hibernation, so they are well worth growing for that reason alone.

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Where to plant hellebores

Hellebores prefer rich, friable soil and dappled shade close to deciduous shrubs and trees. They do not thrive in dry shade.

How to plant hellebores

Hellebores can be pot bound when you buy them. Tease open the roots to encourage them to spread into the ground.

Hellebores grown in polytunnels should stored in a sheltered position until spring, while outdoor reared hellebore can be planted right away. 

Feeding hellebores

They are greedy feeders so give them a yearly feed in September with a slow-release fertiliser (such as Vitax Q4 ) or surround with well-rotted manure.

Pruning hellebores

Oriental hellebores with plain green leaves can be kept disease-free by trimming off all the foliage in early December. This also shows the flowers off and, as the buds open, new foliage appears.

Moving hellebores

Hellebores can be moved as whole plants.

Dividing hellebores

Only divide if necessary and then split large clumps into large pieces.

It’s best to deadhead after flowering in early May, because if your prized hellebore produces lots of seedlings year after year the mother plant loses vigour.

Grow with…

Hellebores mix well with other spring-flowering woodlanders such as epimediums, wood anemones and primroses.

Miniature bulbs include muscari, scilla, miniature narcissi and erythroniums.

Hardy ferns like polystichums and dryopteris are also suitable.

Find out how to plant up a woodland patch

Hellebores

Hellebores clockwise from top right: Hellebore 'Anna's Red', Hellebore 'Picotee', Stinking hellebore

Hellebore varieties

Oriental hellebores

Most of the hellebores you see for sale are oriental hellebores with the Latin name Helleborus x hybrids. They come in many colours and flower forms including anemone-centred, single and double. Sometimes the flowers are spotted or colour-washed so it’s worth having a good look before you buy. 

The best colours for garden use are clear-reds, apple greens and paler pinks. Plummy reds can look drab and dark greys and almost-blacks tend to merge into the soil - so they must be positioned against evergreens or pale-stemmed birches for instance. 

There are also forms with picotee edges, a darker rim around the petals that adds extra definition. Yellows are often precocious flowerers and hard winters blacken the flowers, so site them carefully.

Hellebores are expensive because a lot of plant breeding goes into their development and eight species or so have been hybridised to produce oriental hellebores. They do not divide commercially into lots of small pieces, or ‘noses’, so most are raised by seed, a process which takes three to four years. This is expensive. However oriental hellebores are long lived and they return reliably year after year, so they are worth it.

Hellebores specialists work in different ways. Ashwood Nurseries (www.ashwoodnurseries.com), who have the reputation of growing the very best hellebores in the world, grow on every seedling from their deliberate crosses and allow them to flower before they offer plants for sale. The best plants are added into the breeding programme so many of their for sale plants are four years old or more. This means that you’ll almost certainly have to tease and damage the roots, should they be spiralling round the rootball, before planting.

If you buy from Ashwoods (a West Midlands nursery with a wonderful winter sales display) you should keep your hellebore in as sheltered position and wait to plant it once spring arrives. Ashwood hellebores are grown in tunnels and they will suffer if you put them in the garden straight away.

The Harvington Strain of hellebores, sold in many garden centres, comes in colour strains so their plants, which are grown in cold shade tunnels, tend to be sold as three-year old plants so they cost less. However they still come in a range of shades and types and they can be planted straight away because they have been raised outdoors.

Whichever type of oriental hellebore you buy, do try to buy it in flower because everyone’s idea of a beautiful hellebore varies.

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Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

Christmas rose (Helleborus niger)

Christmas Roses (Helleborus niger)

These have white flowers that appear early in the year and they can be forced into flower for Christmas - hence the name. They make great container plants, but they are not good garden plants for most because they tend to sit their flowers on the muddy earth. 

Christmas roses are not very long-lived in many cases, so if you want to have one in the garden place it in a well-drained, warm situation and cross your fingers!

Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

This British native, despite its unattractive name, can make an impact in a garden because it has clusters of maroon-edged green bells held above dark, divided foliage. It’s compact and upright too.

Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)

Corsican Hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)

Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)

You need space for a Corsican hellebore because the stems tend to fall down to the ground and splay out like spokes on a wagon wheel. 

The large flowers are apple-green and the foliage is shiny and toothed, although there is variegated from called ‘Janet Starnes’ However the leaves of the Corsican hellebore are prone to hellebore leaf spot disease (Microsphaeropsis hellebori syn. Coniothyrium hellebori), a fungal disease that causes dark patches. 

This makes it an uneasy bedfellow if you have lots of choice hellebores because the spores will spread. Best in a wild garden where there’s lots of space.

Hybrid hellebores

Lots of interbreeding has taken place over many years and many of these hybrids have marbled foliage that needs to be left in situ over winter so that you can enjoy it. Most hybrids bred from closely related species are sterile and therefore set no seeds. Plants sold are grown under micro-propagation.

‘Anna’s Red’
Silvered and pink foliage topped by huge ruby-red suacers, so this looks , and the first red-flowered hybrid to have stunning foliage. Bred by Rodney Davey of RD plants, from his Marbled Series, and named after garden writer Anna Pavord.

‘Penny’s Pink’
Also bred by Rodney Davey as part of his Marbled Series, this is a candy-pink form and possibly not as eye catching or such as breakthrough as ‘Anna’s Red’, but still full of flower.

Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Winter Moonbeam’
Also from Rodney Davey, with marbled and veined evergreen foliage topped by greenish white flowers held on pinkish stems. Good in a container.

'Double Ellen'
A frilly double flowered variety available in a range of colours.

Buy beautiful hellebore 'Double Ellen' in white, purple, red or pink spotted from Saga Garden Centre.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.