Heavenly hellebores

Outdoor Living

WARMTH IN COLD Orientalis in the snow. Pic: Eriko Hopkinson

Easy to grow, these beauties create a kaleidoscope of sweet colours

In the garden
Eriko Hopkinson

Happy New Year! Despite the stormy weather in the west, I am hopeful and feeling that spring is near. This is the time of year when seed catalogues become bedtime reading for gardeners.    
It is so exciting to dream about which types of peas, beans sweetpeas, and annual flowers to grow! Whilst we have been cosy and lazy in our warm houses celebrating the winter holidays, the plants in the garden have already begun to stir unnoticed.
It is always a pleasure at this time of year to come upon the scented and brightly coloured flowers of the witch hazel, or the pretty daphne flowers that grow in clusters. It is also a treat to see the elegant and showy flowers of the hellebore in the middle of winter, sometimes even in the snow! These flowers are a priceless sight under the grey winter sky, and offer a sense of life and beauty when nothing much else is happening in the garden.

Natives
Hellebores (Helleborus) are a family of buttercups consisting of approximately 20 species of herbaceous plants, and are also commonly known as ‘Lenten roses’ or ‘Christmas roses’. Hellebores are a woodland edge plant, and are very easy to grow. They love rich, moisture-retentive soil and most of them tolerate anything from full sun to full shade, except for the Irish/British native Helleborus Foetidus.
This native hellebore species is commonly called the stinking hellebore (in spite of its notable lack of stink!), and is taller than other species, as well as preferring an abundance of sunshine. Red-flushed stems bear leathery, dark grey-green leaves divided into narrow lance-shaped leaflets, and its green and red bell-shaped flowers bloom until mid-spring.
The Helleborus Foetidus is one of my favourite hellebores. With its understated elegance and architectural quality, it’s an astonishing plant. Other hellebore species include the white hellebore (Helleborus Niger/Christmas rose), which you will see in the flower shops in the run up to Christmas, as it is commonly used as seasonal decoration.

Endless varieties
Amongst all the varieties of hellebores, the most popular type is undoubtedly Helleborus Orientalis. Its flowers come in all sorts of colours from the softest grey to pale apricot, cerise pink or damson, and from leaf green to the deepest black or pure white. They can be veined or spotted, round-edged or pointed, picotee or plain, double/anemone-centred or single. Almost all of them have evolved methods of successful procreation.
Hellebores will interbreed and produce seedlings around the parent plant. As the seeds are quite large, you can easily sow them when they are ripe, or move seedlings wherever you want. Just note that hellebores dislike root disturbance, so avoid transporting established plants.
Also, avoid planting different varieties too close to each other, if you wish to reproduce a particular variety. And if your priority is to create an environment that is more friendly to bees and other insects (hellebore nectar is a very important source of food for them in early spring), focus more on planting single-flowered varieties.
Hellebores lend themselves to naturalistic schemes and informal plantings, and are the perfect partner for early-flowering spring bulbs, such as narcissuses, scillas, fritillaries and pulmonarias. The space under deciduous trees is the perfect spot for this kind of planting, as the flowers get plenty of spring sun before the new leaves of the trees emerge. The resulting kaleidoscope of sweet colours is one of the most delightful scenes of spring.

Care
One very important thing to remember when you take care of this wonderful plant is to cut off the old leaves when new shoots begin to emerge (generally in early spring). This is to avoid the spread of hellebore leaf spot, which can kill the plants, as well as to prevent the fresh flowers from being obscured by old foliage. Hellebores love leaf mould as mulch, and, as the flowers are generally nodding, you can plant them on higher ground (like hillsides) or in pots placed on tables, in order to enjoy the flowers without bending your back!
Hellebores are also good as cut flowers, but some species need to be in water as soon as they are cut, otherwise they will wilt. Varieties such as Winterbells are commonly used in the cut-flower industry.
The easiest and most effective way to display and enjoy hellebores, though, is to pick the flower heads and float them in a shallow bowl of water. I just love this method; I have an abundance of hellebore bowls!
The relentless rain may be disheartening, but spring is just around the corner! So enjoy your bedtime reading of seed catalogues and all your garden planning

Eriko Hopkinson is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail. A chain of beautiful and unique private gardens, the trail opens to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month, an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.