Hellebores are my favourite flower for one very simple reason. They flower before anything else in the garden. When all other flowers are still in hibernation with not even a hint of life, the hellebore is already peeking up through the soil to make a winter show. During the winter time there are many Hellebore festivals to be had up and down the country so it’s well worth going along to one to see the sheer variety of flowers available.
Hellebores are actually part of the Ranunculus family and closely related to buttercups. You will also find some Greek names thrown in there for good measure which will give you a few clues to its characteristics but I will not bore you with those for now as they are numerous and slightly distract from what is quite a simple and easy to care for perennial.
What is worth noting however is that the Helleborus species is a large and confusing one. The classification along with many other plants is controversial. There have been 2 “new” species added in recent years with proposals to add more and reclassify and/or split others. So just to confuse matters even more you may find over the coming years that names will change. Again don’t let this distract from their beauty as they require almost no effort to thrive and survive. The love those tricky shady areas and can commonly be found in woodland gardens. They love rich soil so be sure to add lots of rich organic matter to the site each spring.
Many Hellebores have flowers which tend to hide under large leaves. It is best to remove the leaves on the acaulescent species in late winter or early spring. Do this just as the flower buds emerge and then you will be able to see the flowers in all of their glory. It also helps to prevent Hellebore leaf spot, which is a fungal disease that can develop if the old foliage is not removed.
Many gardeners are not aware that Hellebores have a fascinating history and that they are in fact poisonous. Hippocrates used Hellebores as medicine for those who needed a diuretic, a laxative or to help those with mental health diseases. However because of their poisonous nature let’s say that the success rate was “mixed”. The Athenians used hellebores as a biological weapon which actually helped to win the First Sacred War by putting the poisonous roots into the Pleisthenes River. When the people of Kirrha drank the water they all got a serious case of diarrhoea and the city was weakened – and so much easier to conquer! With this in mind do be careful when handling the plant, wear gloves when collecting seeds as they commonly cause skin rashes, and do not ingest any parts of the plant.
So putting the poison doom and gloom to one side, Hellebores can be very easily propagated from division and from seed.
Division – If you want to increase your plants of a particular Hellebore then division is the only way to do this. Is best done in spring time but also possible in the Autumn, and to ensure the best results make sure that clumps are split into several sections of reasonable size with at least one growth point in each, dig down deep to get as much of the root ball up as possible. Water well until they properly take root as due to the lack of fine roots new divisions may establish very slowly and sulk a little. If they don’t flower well the following year don’t worry as they will pick up. They just don’t like being moved.
There are two varieties which cannot be divided - H. foetidus and H. argutifolius. These can only be raised by seed.
Collecting & Sowing Seed – If you would like to increase your hellebore stocks much quicker and would like an array of colours and find something unusual or unique then this is the best way to get variety. After the flowers have died away you will be left with swelling seed-pods and each one will be packed full of shiny black seeds. Eventually these pods will ripen, split and scatter their seeds onto the surrounding soil. I allow my Hellebores to do this and I can then dig them up with a trowel and transplant them around the garden, although they do have a tendency to disappear when I do this so I do always pot a few up and leave them in my cold frame for a year or so to keep an eye on them.
You may find that collecting the seed and sowing in pots is more successful. To do these pods need to be picked as soon as they have split but before they have scattered their seeds. Keep to one side in a warm dry place and they will continue to ripen so that you can extract the seeds. For the best success rate sow the seeds immediately, sprinkle onto the surface of a good well drained compost and cover with a little grit. They should germinate quite quickly – within a few weeks. It will take 2-3 years for then to flower so be patient. This 'natural' hybridisation will produce many interesting combinations.