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14 Feb

How to grow and care for Hellebores

At a time when we seem to be hungry for colour, Hellebores bloom and bring splashes of pinks and whites to an otherwise bare, wintery landscape. We share the best tips for growing and caring for Hellebores in your garden.

Delicate shapes and splendid colours make the Hellebore one of the most celebrated plants we can grow in our gardens. Still, horticulture novices may be surprised to find that hellebores do not bloom in the summer. As we are now coming to the middle of February, most Hellebores are coming into flower. Although, many have had their blooms since before Christmas, depending on their location’s microclimate. 

During the dark and gloomy months after the New Year, it can be positively delightful to see your Hellebores begin to burst forth. There is nothing quite like it for curing the winter blues than to see these colourful bloomers bobbing up and down in the breeze. They have a long and glorious flowering season, often lasting for up to three months.  Hellebores are toxic if consumed, so they have a rather macabre history in comparison to other plants. 

An interesting, yet somewhat grim, past…

The first known mention of Hellebores can be found in Greek mythology, where Dioscorides documented the madness of King of Argos’ daughters. The herbalist Melampus gave them the dry, powdered root of hellebore, which cured them. Hellebores feature in many historic myths and ancient battles, with characters mainly using Hellebore as a poison. Heroes (or villains!) have used Hellebores to poison assassins, spike the ends of arrowheads in great battles, and spoil water reserves for whole cities. In medieval medicine, people would often use the plant to treat digestive system issues and ‘melancholy thoughts’, which usually resulted in poisoning.

There are roughly 20 species of Hellebores, with several originating in Europe and Asia. Its scientific name, Helleborus, comes from the ancient Greek word helléboros, meaning “food” and “to injure”. Thanks to their ability to flower when no other plant will, Hellebores became the must-have plant in gardens across the country in the 1850s. Some would call them the ‘Christmas Rose’ despite the Hellebore being not related to the rose family whatsoever. Once Hellebores went out of style again, they all but disappeared from gardens and nurseries until about five years ago.

A must-have plant in today’s garden

While there might not be a great deal of colour in your garden at this time of year, Hellebores will always steal the show. There is no better plant to have in your garden; these herbaceous perennials are easy to grow, they like fertile, free-draining soils and do best in dappled shade. Their recent revival is credited mainly to Helen Ballard, for breeding new hybrid European species’ and Elizabeth Strangman for stocking them in the UK from her nursery in Kent. Exciting and variable ranges are available, in an array of colours from whites and pinks, greens to yellows and blacks to navy blues. Spotted, blotched, blushed, veined and star centred patterns produce increasingly outlandish and exotic looking flowers. 

Hellebores adore the cold! Ideal spots to plant them might be under well-established trees, or in north-facing gardens. The trees will protect them from the sun in the summer by providing shade and will let them have sunlight during the winter, which is not too strong. Slugs and snails do not cause them too much damage, and once they start flowering, they can carry on all the way through to late spring. Helleborus foetidus and Helleborus viridis are our two native species, which are happy growing under challenging conditions providing they are not in waterlogged soil. Choose an open glade inside a wood for your Hellebores and you will be able to enjoy the best flowers. They work well when planted alongside Ferns, Dog’s Tooth Violet, Wood Anemone, Trilliums and Snowdrops. 

Growing and Maintenance

No matter when they flowered, now is the time to take off last season’s leaves. They are prone to fungal disease, which does not affect the flowers too much but can cause unsightly black spots on the leaves. This process also helps to show off the flowers and make them more of a prominent feature in the garden.  It is quite a pleasant job to do on a bright, fresh February morning! Cut away all the older foliage with secateurs, going as far down as you can, and these will be replaced with fresh green leaves as the plant continues to grow throughout the year. If you have sensitive skin, consider wearing gloves when you are trimming back the leaves, as some people’s hands can be irritated by the toxic substance on the leaves. During the cold season, you can give them a liquid fertiliser feed that will provide them with a well-needed boost of nutrients as they begin their high growth season.

Do not be tempted to divide hellebores, let them naturally form into big clumps and collect their seed. If you do not want natural hybridisation, deadhead them after flowering. Growing them in containers is suitable for a short period, but they do not like being in pots for a long time. The sides of the pot can get warmer in the sun, which can heat the roots. If you do need to have them in containers, perhaps cluster pots together so they are protected from the sun, or keep them in the shade. After a little more than a year, your potted Hellebores are going to want to go into the ground. 

Goodnestone Park Gardens in Wingham is of course an excellent place to wander and capture the beauty of the winter Hellebores, and Coton Manor Garden, Northamptonshire is swathed in the purple and pink flowers at this time of year. At Broadview Gardens in Kent, you will find the national collection of Hellebores, which is ideal to visit throughout February and early March.