Shopping for hellebores

Judith Adam

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'Praecox' hellebore blooming in November. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
'Praecox' hellebore blooming in November. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
‘Praecox’ hellebore blooming in November. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

If you’ve had a chance to read Patrick Lima’s article about hellebores in the new winter issue of Garden Making, you might be on the prowl for a few pots of these lovely plants next spring. I never have enough, and the new strains in production are quite fancy. They have the benefit of beautiful flowers with attractive foliage, so are useful the whole growing season. I’ve devoted my north-facing front foundation bed to hellebores, cyclamen and ferns, which to my mind make a winning combination, and all enjoy the same moist organic soil and bright shade. There are several Helleborus purpurascens there, a species with dusty plum bells hanging downward, making a thick clump of nodding flowers. If you turn the flowers up, you can see their happy faces.

Right now I’ve got a classic white hellebore with golden stamens that comes into bloom the first week of November (Helleborus niger ‘Praecox’, Zone 5), with white flowers remaining in good condition the whole month, providing snow doesn’t fall. When snow threatens, I try to get outside and put baskets over the plants until the snow stops, then uncover them when all is clear. They make a nice picture standing with their flowers open wide in snow. This plant is hard to find, and Lost Horizons in Acton, Ont., once carried it (though it doesn’t seem to be in their online catalogue now). In spring I’ll have a new ‘Black Diamond’ purple-black hellebore in bloom, a gift from a friend. The flowers are described as slate-purple to almost black with yellow stamens, and foliage that emerges deep purple-black and slowly fades to green.

I’m a bit challenged by black flowers; in fact I might have a total breakdown when the black foliage of ‘Black Diamond’ emerges in April. But it’s been pointed out to me that breeding programs make wonderful changes, and I just have to be open to advancement.

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2 thoughts on “Shopping for hellebores”

  1. Hello Natalie (Feb.8),

    You’ve already figured out the best time to lift and move hellebores, and that’s when flowering finishes in late spring. Waiting until autumn would catch the plants with buds formed (held down around the crown), and that’s a more delicate time for them. Far better to do it in spring when flowers are finished, and the plant is more relaxed.

    Hellebores are pollinated by flying insects (solitary bee or wasp species), so I expect that they’re able to turn the corner and visit more than one group of plants. I don’t think you will get cross-breeds of H. x hybridus and H. orientalis. Of the seedlings you do get, the colours are unpredictable. Some could be quite similar to the parent, but are more likely to have a few of the parental characteristics (such as freckled petals), and a less clear colour. Others could be absolutely muddy, or a dull beige/green. It takes about 3 to 4 years for seedlings to come into flower. I let the seedlings remain around their mother’s skirts for a couple of years, then lift them in their second year and put them around the garden. After that it’s easy to forget about them, until one fine spring day I notice a new hellebore flower. If it looks promising, it stays. If it’s muddy, away it goes.

    — Judith

  2. Rather than a comment, I have a couple of questions about hellebores.

    First, when would be the right time to move or divide a mature hellebore? I planted some too close together and they’re now crowding one another. They flower so very early that I suspect a right-after-flowering timing is the correct one? But then they’re relatives of peonies, so may prefer the fall after all?

    Second – There are hellebores in three different parts of the garden. Two patches are separated by about ten feet, and are then separated from the last patch by about 20 feet (and around a corner). Each group has a different flower colour – white with spots (H. hybridus ‘Royal Heritage’), yellow (H. orientalis ‘Yellow Lady’) and dusky purple (I think H. orientalis atropurpureum’). They’re quite happy in my garden (Ottawa) and several are self-sowing prolifically. They’re very tidy in doing this, with the seedlings staying quite close to the parent plant, but none are yet old enough to have bloomed. My question is about whether I should expect seedlings to resemble the parents. H. hybridus – probably not. But how about the H. orientalis? And can they cross-pollinate? Despite the distance separating them?

    Your answer will be appreciated. (As are your blog postings!)

    Thank you


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