The handsome hellebore

As snowdrops grab the headlines after Christmas, the hellebores quietly assemble while the attention is focussed elsewhere. Frankly, I think a hellebore is much more fun than a snowdrop, though neither are as innocent as they might at first appear.

There’s something rather marvellous about the hellebore, particularly when compared to the snowdrop, with whom she shares sole possession of the late winter garden, excepting the odd dishevelled looking shrub loitering suspiciously at the boundaries, possessing dubious aesthetic credentials and tiny flowers that smell of cat pee*. But while the snowdrop communicates innocence and purity, the hellebore appears an altogether different character – more Maleficent than Snow White, to mix my Disney narratives. 

Hellebores and snowdrops in company

True, the hellebore hangs her head, forcing the interested observer to stoop or kneel in order to admire the intricate geometry of her floral parts, but I’ve always felt there was more archness than modesty here. And what are we to make of the green winged bracts that adorn the flower stem (not the true leaves, which originate lower down), if not a high structured collar such as those worn by self-respecting villains from Ming the Merciless to the Wicked Witch?

Hellebores have leafy bracts on the stem behind the flower

A shady customer, without a doubt – appropriately so, as many species and varieties thrive best in the dappled light beneath trees and shrubs, enjoying the cool, damp conditions afforded by a good deep mulch of leafmould. Poisonous too, though scarcely more so than the snowdrop, which can itself be fatal if ingested in sufficient quantity.

We can also consider the hellebore to be frighteningly well-versed in the art of deception; those petals – ranging from creamy, greeny white, through dusky pink to black, and sometimes sporting endearing freckles – aren't in fact petals at all, but sepals, comprising the outer, protective layer of the calyx and which, unlike petals, have the ability to photosynthesise, helping to feed the plant after pollination and remaining attached as the seed develops. The petals themselves have evolved into small, tubular nectaries ringing the reproductive parts of the flower. Handling of all parts of the flower is best done with gloves, as incidents of burns to the skin have been reported. 

The modified petals in the form of tubular nectaries can be seen in a ring around the stamens, best seen in this image at the top left quadrant of the central boss

An exotically attractive, toxic plant, with leaves that aren’t leaves, and petals that aren’t petals. And we haven’t even mentioned promiscuity. Fat anthers packed with pollen in an open flower structure, the hellebore is not shy, and seedlings of all kinds appear in number once the first few plants have settled in, to the extent that, if you're fussy about that kind of thing, it’s wise to keep track of where you planted your original specimens – few of the seedlings will come true, but it’s tremendously satisfying to watch a collection grow. This initial settling in stage can take some years, however, and it takes time for seedlings to bulk up to flowering size, so it pays to be patient and to avoid obsessively weeding if building a collection is your goal. 

Perhaps the most readily available hellebores are the oriental hybrids, Helleborus x hybridus, the Lenten Rose (the Christmas rose refers to Helleborus niger, an evergreen species with generally white or pinkish flowers). Remove the old leaves before the flowers appear in order to reduce the spread of the hellebore leaf spot fungus – after Christmas is a good time for this task; earlier, if they start to look messy.  

Helleborus  x  ballardiae  with its distinctive leaf marbling

Helleborus x ballardiae with its distinctive leaf marbling

The marbled leaf of Helleborus x ballardiae (a cross between H. niger and H. lividus) is an attractive foil to the robust, deep pink stems and exotic flower buds, standing erect and tall in the image below after the leaves have been removed. 

Helleborus  x  sternii

Helleborus x sternii

Helleborus x sternii ‘Blackthorn Group’ is more tolerant of sun, and less so of shade, as I have found to my cost watching its etiolated progress out of the too-gloomy spot where I’ve put it. When it’s happy, it’s a particularly attractive variety, with toothed leaves, and flowers creamy-green inside with a lilac blush on the back.

Helleborus foetidus, the stinking hellebore

The closest I can get to a weed from this member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) is our native stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, with its variable green flowers, edged with a mauve strip at the rim. Preferring woodland conditions like its showier relatives, it can also withstand drier conditions, preferring neutral to alkaline soils. 

Handsome, wicked, deceitful – so much more fun than a snowdrop. 

Saturday 18 February sees the last of this years Hellebore Tours at Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands, breeders of many fabulous hellebore varieties.   

Do you have a favourite hellebore? Or, frustrated by the high prices in the shops, are you propagating your own? Let me know on twitter or in the comments below.

*Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn', we’re looking at you. Meanwhile the perfume of Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) is rather fabulous, as it would need to be in order to justify the presence of an otherwise unremarkable shrub in the garden for the other 48 weeks of the year.