I bet you’re thinking ‘What can she mean’? Well for now let’s just say that I am becoming increasingly alarmed at some of the hybrid Hellebores being produced and the lack of information given at point of sale, mostly from Garden Centres. I shall expand on this later but will begin with how I came to learn more about the more well known species (and hybrids) within this genus.
I was seduced by Hellebores quite early on in my gardening journey, some 28 years ago, mostly by Helleborus orientalis also commonly known as the Lenten rose (now called x hybridus a name which I think too confusing so am sticking to orientalis although this is quite a collective name) . I was fortunate to be not far from small nursery producers who were doing great things with them by producing hybrid strains in the early 90s, like the great Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery and even more so, Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery.
Of course it was Helen Ballard who really started hybridising Hellebores in the 60s, not just orientalis ones but crosses between other species. Basically, without being too techy this means taking rising pollen from one flower (rising in that it produces golden dust on your finger, mostly on sunny days in the morning) and transfering it to another flower that is just opening where the stamens are not developed and where the bees have not already done their work. In the old days, after this was carried out, small muslin bags were often tied round the hand pollinated flower to stop the bees getting in. These days commercially, the plants are all undercover and the pollination is carried out there so no bees can get in.
Why the need for hand pollinating Hellebores?
Helleborus orientalis forms are copious seeders but before Helen Ballard, most of the orientalis type Hellebores grown in gardens were of muddy colouration with seedling progeny being mixed and variable through insect pollination. They do not come true to type from seed.
It was found that by selecting say two similar looking plants of the same colour with good characteristics, like outward facing flowers and good, even shape, then by hand pollinating as detailed above and growing on the resultant seed, many plants with the improved characteristics were produced.
The same theory was carried out for other characteristics for example two plants with the same colour background and mild, uneven spotting, could result in young plants produced with even, heavier and more desirable spotting; two plants with dark nectaries on a same colour background (nectaries in non techy terms form a ring around the central stamens of the flower) crossed could produce a desirable dark staining to the centre of the plant as well as dark nectaries, so on and so forth. The cross was always carried out as a back cross (ie both ways) and notes taken so it could be determined which seed bearing parent produced the better plant. If no other similar good looking plants were available to cross with then ‘selfing’ was carried out. In other words, taking pollen from one flower on a plant to pollinate another flower on the same plant.
Helen Ballard named many of her beautiful hybrid Hellebore orientalis which had exquisite shape and colours but this was not commercial at the time as she had not developed seed strains and although it is easy to divide Hellebore orientalis hybrids successfully (which I shall talk about later), it was not a viable option on a large scale.
It was really Robin White of the fabled Blackthorn Nursery that took up the gauntlet and boy did he run with it! Elizabeth Strangman worked on a much smaller scale than Robin White and offered some beautiful plants by hand pollinating and selecting in small batches, Robin was crossing feintly spotted wild Hellebore orientalis selections (known once as as a sub species, guttatus) and producing strains of white spotted, pink spotted, green spotted and yellow spotted amongst other strains such as red strain and slatey blue strain in their 1000s. I shall never forget the Hellebore days of Blackthorn Nursery when people would come from all over Europe to buy and I still have the plants I purchased from both Washfield Nursery and Blackthorn nursery, some of which are over 25 years old!
Cross pollinating different species of Hellebores
Of course it wasn’t just orientalis strains that Robin was offering. He was one of the first to offer a large range of double Hellebores in his ‘Party Dress’ doubles. These were originally derived from seed selected from double forms of Helleborus torquatus found in the wild and not the German double forms that many are using today which we see for sale in garden centres. The difference in the German doubles used for breeding is that they are very heavy and tend to weigh the plant down, you also don’t get so many flower stems, in my garden for certain but they do perform well in pots. The torquatus doubles are outward facing generally but have a much more upright habit. Both tend to be shorter than the singles so as a cut flower, generally only suitable for luxury posies rather than long stemmed bouquets (I will address cutting Hellebores later).
Many doubles available now sadly also have other additional aspects to them such as spotting and petaloid nectaries (I’ll define this a bit further down) which to me, not only leads to a very fussy looking plant that looks completely unnatural but has also lead to some very weak plants for sale. It’s overbreeding at it’s worst and all they can look very seductive in the garden centre, they have spent their entire lives undercover, artificially fed and no doubt heavily applied with pesticides as Hellebores can be a martyr to aphids under cover which can easily spread virus between plants.
When I first obtained doubles, I only purchased one in each colour available. Wanting to produce plants from them I had no option but to ‘self’ them by hand pollination but I also decided to have a go at crossing a single with a double of similar colour without knowing what I was doing. Evidently, others were doing the same as me and so was born the Anemone centred Hellebore.
Robin White also offered selections of Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, in forms such as ‘Potter’s Wheel’, niger x sternii crosses and niger x corsicus crosses. NONE OF THESE ARE EASY TO GROW IN THE UK IN THE GROUND AND THEY DEFINITELY DO NOT LIKE SHADE OR OUR WET WINTERS, so let me tell you a bit more about them and others.
Firstly, let’s take the variety of Hellebores generally available for sale in the UK at garden centres and nurseries today (I’m not including specialised species here)
Helleborus argutifolius (formerly corsicus) – the former species name refers to the fact that it comes from Corsica which should tell you that it likes a warm place. It is not a shade lover and does dreadfully in the open garden where the leaves can be a martyr to black spot. It is always best planted against a wall, North South East or West as long as the North side is not too dark. Easily raised from fresh seed.
Helleborus foetidus – The stinking Hellebore grows in sun or light shade and definitely prefers lime or chalk and thin shaley soils. It is usually short lived on rich soils. Easily raised from fresh seed.
Helleborus x hybridus (formerly orientalis) – The Lenten rose, but be careful, several of the new mixed species crosses that I will discuss below are being marketed in garden centres as lenten roses which they are not! Definitely the easiest species to grow but as so many have been hybridised by hand pollinating they are little like the true wild forms that used to be grown in gardens in their muddy colours so have been reclassified as H x hybridus. When buying and selecting these, simplest is best. The more features going on in one plant, say doubling, with spotting, with anemone centre too will generally be weaker plants. When you see them in pots in flower, don’t forget that they will have been growing in artificial conditions and so won’t necessarily perform as well in your garden. They like sun or shade and you can grow them from fresh seed but they will rarely come true from seed.
Helleborus lividus – This is not hardy generally in the Uk but is frequently sold in garden centres as hardy. It makes a great pot plant protected under cold glass in winter, it also likes plenty of sun but more alarmingly it is increasingly being used as a breeding parent for many hybrids for sale in garden centres that have then been bulked up by tissue culture so are all clonal plants. It stands to reason that if this is not a hardy plant, making it one of the parents will undoubtedly make the hybridised offspring less likely to be fully hardy The species is easily raised from fresh seed.
Helleborus niger – is what we know as the Christmas rose, there are some selected named form of this which are re-produced by division or mostly, tissue culture commercially. All niger are difficult to grow in the garden but make good pot plants if re-potted yearly and divided every few years. In the garden they prefer a limey, well drained soil and sun NOT shade. They definitely perform better if sheltered. I’ve seen them growing well at the base of a Beech Hedge. The species are easily raised from fresh seed. Named forms will not come true from seed but may raise some desirable plants.
Helleborus mixed species crosses – this is where it all starts to get complicated but this section is probably the most relevant part of the blog referring to the ‘dumbing down’ of Hellebores. Unfortunately, most garden centres are now stocking these mixed species crosses as their main selection of Helleborus offerings described below. Many of them don’t provide details of the cross, they are just sold under a cultivar name such as the popular Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’. This actually has a label accompanying it saying it is a lenten rose which it is not, it nearly died in my garden (it was gifted to me by my friend Rodney Davey who bred it) so I lifted it and it is happy in a terracotta pot, overwintered undercover in very cold or wet weather).
Why does this matter?
It matters for a few reasons. Firstly these mixed species crosses have mostly been produced by crossing a hardy species with a non hardy species, or worse, a non-hardy species with a difficult species and even a 3 way cross like ‘Anna’s Red’. It stands to reason that if you cross a difficult plant with a non-hardy plant, you are more than likely to produce a plant that is not a good garden plant when grown in the ground. However, these plants do make great pot plants when grown undercover in winter or in a sunny porch, which is one reason why the garden centres like them as they look good but just because something looks good in a commercial glass house, and has benefited from a regular chemical feed plus regular pesticide applications doesn’t mean it will do well in a garden situation with weeks of wet and cold in winter. These mixed species hybrids rarely, if ever set viable seed.
Although originally raised from seed, these plants have been multiplied by tissue culture as Hellebores do not come true from seed, they cannot be given a cultivar name unless vegetatively propagated, so these have all been derived from the material of the original plant and a clue to a tissue culture raised Hellebore is when it has been given a cultivar name.
Helleborus ‘Winter Darling’ is a mixed species cross that is possibly tougher than some because the leaves do not show the use of lividus in the breeding. These mixed species crosses are also being marketed as suitable for planting in shade in the open garden like orientalis hybrids which is totally the opposite of where they would thrive in the garden. If you do wish to grow them outside in the ground, I would suggest South or west facing in a sheltered position near the house and ideally with a gravel mulch to keep mud splash off the flowers and help prevent black spot in winter.
Another way of detecting what sort of Hellebore you have or are intending to purchase
Look at the leaves. This is undoubtedly the biggest clue.
By looking at the leaves, plus the ones shown before for lividus and ‘Anna’s Red’ you can help identify what parents might have been used in the cross. The more prominent the veining, as lividus in picture under Helleborus lividus, the more likely the plant will need a very sheltered growing area or be better off in a pot given winter protection.
More details of mixed species crosses
It is worth noting that these crosses below are resulting in our biggest garden centre selections available of Hellebores with cultivar names. Because species plants often show subtle variations, like big flower, small flower, long stem, short stem, pink blush, outward facing etc, the same cross and back cross can result in a plethora of different plant types being produced as suitable plants for tissue culture production on a large scale.
Helleborus x ballardiae – This cross was named after Helen Ballard who was the first person to carry out the cross successfully. It certainly produces some beautifully floriferous plants if grown in a pot protected from adverse weather but can hardly be relied upon to be easy in the garden with the cross being between the non-hardy lividus and difficult niger. Sadly, this cross is one of the most used today for garden centre named cultivars being offered which is one reason I guess that people are saying to me that they can’t grow Hellebores. However, these crosses do make wonderful cut flowers. More on this later.
Helleborus x nigercors – This cross is Helleborus niger crossed with argutifolius (formerly corsicus). Generally tougher than those crosses of the above but still suffers from wet winter damage but also good in a pot and some for cut flowers too. Garden grow as for H x ballardiae.
Helleborus x nigerstern – Also known as H. ‘Ericsmithii’ who was the first person known to make the cross. This cross is between Helleborus niger and Helleborus x sternii (itself a cross but also a fertile cross) and all the above is relative again for planting conditions.
Helleborus x sternii – Is a cross between lividus and argutifolius named after the person who first discovered the cross, Sir Frederick Stern, it is very similar looking to argutifolius but instead of apple green flowers, the flowers are a more pewter pink and they can be variable in shading. The leaves also have a pewter cast, it is not fully hardy but hardier in warmer counties. Again it can be a martyr to blackspot if grown in the open garden. At it’s best grown at the base of a wall facing South or West. Unlike most other mixed species crosses, this cross actually often sets viable seed for collection although resulting seedlings should be selected for those with the more pewter coloured leaves.
Growing Hellebores from seed
Hellebore seed has a short viability, it needs to be sown fresh, ideally within a couple of weeks after collecting. If you have no plants to collect from, some Hellebore growers offer fresh seed for sale but most don’t send out until around August. Seed in the UK is generally ripening by the end of April and early May so best to harvest then.
Pods inflate hugely and usually pop open when pressure is applied. Seed is black or almost black when ripe. Take care when harvesting seed by wearing gloves as it can burn your finger tips. This is often not realised until some hours after collecting and can leave you with sore fingers for days!
Sow on a soil based seed compost (seed takes some time to germinate may be up to a year but seedlings usually begin to appear before winter, so needs a good seed compost) and cover with horticultural fine grit. Hellebores have extensive roots so I like to sow in pots rather than trays kept outside in a cold frame so that they can be protected from excessive wet but still be exposed to fresh air. Do not be in a hurry to prick out when the true leaves emerge. Give them a liquid feed in their seed pots and wait for the seedlings to grow somewhat before pricking out. Either transplant to a 9cm pot to grow on or plant out in nursery rows to grow on to flowering stage. If grown in pots, young plants will probably need to be potted on into a 1 1/2 or 2L pot, preferably a long pot by the following late summer. Growing in pots that are protected from weather in the winter will often see plants flowering in their second year. Grown in nursery beds, they may take up to 4 years to flower.
It is best not to let seed form and drop in situ from flowered plants in the garden because seedlings can take over the original plant and may be of inferior quality so remove flowered stems from all plants other than those stems you are saving for seed collection, in early May generally but this may be earlier or later depending where you live in the UK
Division of some Hellebores is only for very experienced gardeners as it can lead to heavy losses and some such as Helleborus foetidus are just not suited to it.
Dividing Helleborus orientalis hybrids and Helleborus niger is relatively simple if the plant is large. Indeed it might be necessary on very old plants as the centre of the plant like many perennials might become exhausted and flowering stems are only being produced on the outsides. The best time to divide is when the plants are in full flower and before the new leaves are properly emerging. You can either lift the whole plant, clean some soil away and cut the plant into sections, each containing roots with at least one flowering stem or if the plant has grown away from the centre, just chop sections of plant from the ground as if cutting a slice of cake. Either pot up into not too large a pot or transplant directly. Don’t let a potted plant get too wet after this operation. As soon as new leaf or leaves are produced and fully expanded, remove the flowering stem.
Looking after Hellebores
I find that orientalis forms are generally care free but all benefit from a feed at the end of flowering. Either a liquid feed such as seaweed extract or a granular feed such as Vitax Q 4 raked into the soil around the plant and watered in. Orientalis like a mulch either at the same time or in early autumn of leafmould or well rotted compost. Composted bark is also good but snowdrops do not like bark chips so if you are growing these nearby it’s worth mentioning.
I like to remove all the old leaves of Hellebore orientalis forms in November so the flowers come through on naked stems. For niger and the others I just remove any leaves that have black spot or that are old and tatty.
By May, I remove all the flowered stems unless I am still waiting for seed to ripen for collecting.
Pests and Diseases
Hellebore Black Death
This is undoubtedly the most serious disease not to be confused with Black spot. If you suspect any Hellebore of having this, dig it up and burn it immediately as the disease could be spread to other Hellebores by Aphids. Signs of this are severe black streaking to flower stems and distorted, misshapen flower buds. The plant later starts to deteriorate rapidly as it comes into flower and looks wilted. I have had this on two plants in my garden that I had purchased elsewhere a few years ago. No others have suffered from this misfortune.
Hellebore Black spot
This often manifests in wet winters and just because you get it one year, doesn’t mean you will get it the next but it is one reason why I remove all the leaves from my Helleborus orientalis hybrids in November and any leaves that have it on other forms to reduce the chance of it spreading to the flowers and to further leaves.
A serious problem but particularly to Hellebores grown undercover. Aphids carry disease and can spread virus quite quickly from one plant to another. In a well balanced garden, small birds will generally eat most of the Aphids but undercover this is not possible. Most commercially grown Hellebores are reliant on heavy pesticide applications as they are grown undercover and therefore more prone to Aphid attack.
A serious pest of country gardens. Voles will literally grind the flower buds to confetti as soon as they are formed on plants in autumn and if they don’t get them all then they are serious seed raiders and steal all the seed. As an organic garden grower I rely on my cats to kill all the voles. If you do not have cats, cutting the leaves away in autumn as I advised for Hellebore orientalis and keeping areas clear around Hellebores in autumn and winter will provide fewer hiding places for voles. Fill any vole holes in the ground with coarse grit, and keep the holes checked for future activity. This encourages them to venture somewhere else to make their underground nests. I have also found placing ground cloves around Hellebore buds reasonably successful but if wet continually, repeat applications may be necessary.
Hellebores as cut flowers
For all the pictures I see on Instagram with Hellebore orientalis hybrids picked still carrying all their pollen and freshly opened for use in winter arrangements, it’s nonsense I’m afraid. The flowers will wilt within 24 hours unless for floating in a bowl of water.
Much has been said about slitting the flower stem right along it’s length and up as near to the flower as you can go and then searing the base of the stem for 10 seconds with boiling water. In my experience, this can extend the life of the flower by maybe 2 days but then it will still wilt if in a warm place and let’s face it, most inside places in winter are kept warm! If kept cold the flowers will hold for maybe 4 or 5 days after this treatment, maybe longer if the first flower on the stem has lost it’s pollen. As the season progresses and more flowers on each stem lose their pollen, the longer the stem will last as a cut flower
When you get well into the season, near to the end of Hellebore time the flowers can cut well, particularly if all the pollen has fallen on every flower to each stem. However, many orientalis hybrids will fade to dirty colours at this time and so may not be suitable for use but some take on wonderful faded colours and the dark plum ones stay that colour. Cut at this stage they will last up to 2 weeks in water with no searing required.
The mixed species crosses are much more suitable as a cut flower earlier in the season. This is generally because they produce many more flowers per stem and the flowers lose their pollen much more quickly as seen in the picture above. They still may require slitting and searing but other problems are that many are short of stem so maybe only of use as buttonholes and there is the whole not fully hardy thing. Some commercial cut flower growers are using longer stemmed forms for cut flowers but they need to be grown undercover as too unreliable outside, with summer ventilation and you then have the whole Aphid problem. I certainly wouldn’t want to be using any harmful pesticides to control the aphids so if you wish to grow them extensively for use as a cut flower you need to consider this. Helleborus ‘Winter Darling’ has quite a long stem if grown undercover.
Quite probably out of print, both of these books are well worth tracking down if you can find a second hand copy.
4 March 2018