How to Grow Hellebore

Most Hellebores are low growing plants reaching about 3-.5m high and are easy to grow, indicated by the green wheelbarrow.  Hellebores produce a succession of flowers from December through to spring.

Most  Hellebores routinely offered for sale are Helleborus hybridus ( previously known as H.orientalis,) commonly known as the Lenten rose to distinguish from Helleborus Niger, the Christmas rose which flowers much earlier.

One of the earliest flowering are H. 'Christmas Carol'  illustrated bottom right, and H. 'Verboom beauty' which start flowering in December.  Hellebores self seed and multiple into clumps as in the image left. The majority of the popular varieties of Helleborus are small plants, growing up to around half a metre, and so are often planted at the front of the border plant and also used as ground cover. The flowers are predominately white, cream, pink, green, and dark red. Many Hellebores have attractive markings inside the flower, as shown in a number of the images. To enjoy the delicate flowers, because the flower heads hang down,  it is a good idea to plant Hellebores on a bank. In addition Hellebores look good in a woodland settings. Hellebores are usually evergreen although also semi evergreen/deciduous in cold winters.

The more unusual Hellebore is H. 'Corsican' which as the name suggests originates from Corsica, which is green with leathery leaves, evergreen and taller than the other Hellebores at around 1.2m (4ft), illustrated centre image. 

Helleborus orientalis

Hellebores are tolerant of most conditions,  and ideal growing conditions are a moist but well drained alkaline soil in dappled shade. Illustrated left is Helleborus X hybridus WD 'Elegance White'  with spectacular double flowers. New strains of Helleborus are being bred all the time, including this variety by Ashwood Nurseries who have a terrific range of Hellebores on offer for sale. H. Verboom beauty has the advantage of being suitable for indoor or outdoor cultivation. As a very early flowering variety it can be used for Christmas containers and after flowering planted outside for the following year. 

 

Hellebore in the snow

Hellebores will withstand the weather and illustrated is a hellebore braving the winter snow and looking very lovely. No matter how bad the snow, Hellebores seem to lift up their heads and emerge unscathed.

Hellebores are evergreen or semi-evergreen,  although the foliage can look a bit battered in winter, it can be removed in late winter /early spring. Given that Hellebores flower early in the year they are a good source of nectar for any emerging solitary bees.

Hellebores flower for a long time and are one of those plants whose flowers look good as they fade. 

As a woodland plant Hellebores look good with spring flowering bulbs which will flower at a similar time, such as Iris reticulata, Grape Hyacinth, Winter Aconite, Snowflake, and Fritillaria  are good companions. 

Hellebores are a Green Wheelbarrow plant as they are generally easy to grow with little maintenance

Where to Plant Hellebores

 Helleborus are tough versatile plants, whose preferred conditions are neutral to alkaline soil with dappled shade, but will tolerate a far wider range of growing conditions excluding only very wet or very dry conditions. This means Hellebores are plants you can place in most parts of the garden.  When planting Hellebores bear in mind they are quite vigorous and multiple quickly to make larger clumps;  they need space to expand.

Hellebores flower from December through to mid spring although the flowers may stay on the plants longer as they slowly fade, but still look attractive. Hellebores are self seeders and so if you want to restrict this remove the spent flower heads.  Hellebores are at their best from late winter to early spring. There are some early flowering varieties which look good in December, (image bottom right H. "Christmas Carol") and look good placed somewhere you can see them from indoors, or put in tubs to create a winter bedding scheme.

Hellebores are reliable and flower every year once established with little or no attention. They self seed freely, forming a new seedling near the parent plant which will flower after two or three years a process which over time creates clumps of Hellebores( image above  left) which look good in a natural or woodland setting. 

Hellebores will grow without any attention, although they do better if the old foliage is removed in late winter December or January. Removal of most or all of the foliage serves several purposes. Firstly, it displays the flowers at their best, leaving just the new young foliage coming through. When you cut back in Dec/Jan you will need to do so carefully as at ground level the flowers are in bud forming along with new foliage. In some professional gardens such as the RHS  all of the old foliage is removed to show off the flowers.

The second reason is that Hellebores are very prone to black spot and by Dec/Jan the leaves will be showing evidence of black spot to a greater and lesser degree. This year, 2017/2018 we suffered a very wet winter and I have cut all the leaves from the Hellebores to remove the black spot infestation. 

Obviously the leaves are needed for photosynthesis, which is why they can be removed in the Winter during January or February, and new foliage will grow ready for the spring ready for photosynthesis. Routine removal of the leaves in Jan/Feb will show off the flowers nicely and reduce the development of any leaf spot to which Helleborus are prone.  As a woodland plant an ideal mulch is leaf mould, (image below right)  although any well rotted organic matter will be suitable.

Most but not all Helleborus are fully hardy and will grow reliably year after year. Some Helleborus × hybridus are borderline which means they may need winter protection especially in more exposed gardens. 

Hellebores are good for under planting deciduous shrubs.

Removing leaves from Hellebores

There is varying advice on the issue of removing leaves from Hellebores. 

There is consensus that Hellebores are prone to Leaf/Black spot characterised by unsightly brown and black patches on the leaves. There is agreement that all infected leaves should be removed, and not composted. Some growers remove leaves in November/December, some in January and some remove only the previous year's growth, others most of the leaves. 

I tend to remove most the leaves in January to display the flowers and make way for the new leaf growth which will follow the flowers. As the image shows the foliage can be in a poor state by January anyway, lots of it and with evidence of leaf spot and hiding the emerging Hellebores. The second image shows the same plant after cut back.

More about Hellebore leaf spot below

Word of Warning

Hellebores are among the group of plants whose leaves can cause irritation, sometimes severe.  We all know to be careful of poison ivy, and handle thorny roses with care, but be aware that Hellebores can cause a chemical reaction on the skin which is very uncomfortable. When cutting Hellebores back, wear thick gloves and cover arms with long sleeves. Having failed to do so recently, I can vouch for the discomfort it is akin to being stung by stinging nettles!

If you are worried about poisonous plants the RHS has a comprehensive list plus links to websites which list plants poisonous to pets. 

Hellebore before cutting back

Hellebore before cutting back January 2019

Hellebore after cutting back

Hellebore after cutting back Jan 2019
Clumps of Pink and Cream Hellebores  in full bloom

Fast forward

These are the same Hellebore  as shown above when they were cut back in January 2019.  Fast forward three months later and they are in full bloom and looking good. In case you hesitate with the secateurs because this seems like a drastic cut, feel reassured by the before and after photos. The Hellebores will flower and look much better without all the tired-looking foliage. 

Growing Hellebores from Seed

Hellebores will self seed and some of the seedlings will mature into plants.  To ensure the safe passage of the tiny seedling it can be better to dig it up and pot on into a small container and grow for a season and then plant out.

You can also collect seed which will be around May time. The seed is best sown immediately and leave the pots outside to get a cold spell and they may germinate later/the following year. Growing from seed can be a slow process and I find nature does it better than I do. Just leaving the Hellebores to self seed usually produces a few new plants each year.

Hellebores for Particular Conditions

Hellebores are widely tolerant of most conditions if you have a particular spot in mind it is worth considering the following tips.

The Hellebores lenten rose types will grow almost anywhere, they are best in damp well drained soil in dappled shade. If grown in sunnier conditions the soil needs to be more moist.

If you want to grow Hellebores in dry shade, a varieties to try is  Helleborus x nigercors or  H. foetidus (the stinking hellebore, possibly not so attractive)

In sun, Helleborus x sternii and Helleborus odorus, the latter is a green variety, fragrant and both are slightly tender. 

How to divide Hellebores

Hellebores can be divided allowing you to create new plants for free.

Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) is best divided in the spring and Helleborus x hybrids, the lenten rose  and the orientalis varieties, are best divided in the late summer or autumn. However, Hellebores are fairly tough plants and should survive being divided at all times except when the weather is bad over the winter and/or when they are in full bloom. This means most Hellebores can all be divided in mid to late spring,  and if you are not sure what type of Hellebore you have, divide it after flowering later in the spring.

To divide, lift the clump retaining as much root as possible, cut into largish pieces about 15cmc each (6") and replant, watering well. After replanting Hellebores may take a little while to re establish, which can mean a lack of flowers in the following late winter/spring, but they should start to do better after that. 

There are two types of Hellebore which are not suited to division.  Helleborus foetidus, known as the stinking Hellebore and it is tall, up to .5m and predominantly green,  and H. argutifolius, the Corsican Hellebore  (top centre image) which is similar to look at, mainly green flowers and similar size but with prickly leaves. If your Hellebores  are tall with green flowers it is best not to divide them.

Problems with Hellebores - Black Leaf Spot

Hellebores are more or less trouble free except they can suffer from a common fungal problem of leaf spot which as the name suggests means the leaves get marked with black or brown marks. The image below shows what Hellebore black spot,  and the simple solution is to cut off the leaf, or as many leaves as are infected. If the infection is severe cut off all the leaves, the plant will survive.  The plant does not seem to suffer from having many leaves removed and they are replaced by new ones in the spring. Always remove any leaves which are brown or black even if it means the plant is almost denuded it will survive and as always with infected leaves, do not compost. Cut carefully as by late December/early January the new buds will be coming through, center image, and it is important not to damage these. In the third image below all the leaves have been removed in Dec/Jan and a layer of leaf mulch has been added. 

Hellebores can also get Black death which causes black streaking on the stems, leaves and even flowers and looks different to Leaf Spot as is distinct streaking often along the veins. Eventually if left unchecked it will kill the plant. The solution is to remove the leaves at the first sight of it, the same as with Leaf Spot. In common with many plants Hellebores can get Downy mildew, a fungus, covering the leaves with yellow spots and off white mould. Remove and bin affected leaves.

Bear in mind Hellebores are a poisonous plant, (humans and pets) and ingestion of root or leaves can cause stomach upsets, and for some people they are also a skin irritant.