The hellebores keep on giving

I first came across the allure of the hellebore nearly 20 years ago when watching the BBC programme Gardener’s World.  Inspired, I went off in search but found them scarce in mainstream garden centres, where they were rarely sold to advantage or at their best.

In those days I was naïve to specialist nurseries and mail order services. Nor had online shopping become a commonplace. But one weekend, I think in 2006, I was visiting a small plant centre near Great Ayton in North Yorkshire with my elderly mother, when I came across a beautiful hellebore plant with fresh green yet leathery leaves and a flower of five white petals flecked with a paint splash of purple surrounding a heart of creamy coloured nectaries. It was pricey and I bought it with some trepidation, wondering if it would survive long in the Dumfriesshire garden.

For a few years it lived on a sloping bank with a path running below it. The position made it possible to look up from the path and gaze into its mass of elegantly drooping blooms. The idea was good, but the path in question was one rarely taken, and so I moved it to a spot I pass at least once every day. There it has stayed and seems content, though it has bulked up very slowly and I have not had the courage to spilt and divide it to create more plants.  

Another early hellebore acquisition was from a different branch of the family. Also evergreen and tough, this type has a lower, more spreading habit and its flowers tend to look up rather than droop. The ones I have are off-white, in some instances tinged with pink, and without any notable markings. In general these hellebores seem to be the earliest to appear, though I have noticed you can’t set the calendar by them. One particular specimen has been known to flower in November, but this year didn’t come into bloom until March.

Over time, and as the ease of buying hellebores has increased, I have added more, dotted around the garden in places they seem to like – among shrubs and under trees. My preferred colour-palette broadly divides into creamy-white-pink, and deeper purple. I tend not to go for the fussily fancy forms. I usually buy a couple of plants at Christmas each year and have them by the front door or just inside the house, depending on conditions. As they begin to fade, and the festive season passes, they are given a permanent home in the borders.

I have read about hellebores and quickly got lost in the naming, categorisation and terminology. This has been made more challenging by a recent reclassification process. The plant is also a magnet for hybridisers, who have come up with countless variants.

Broadly I think of them in two groups. First, the feisty spreaders, that seem almost indestructible, low growing, serrated leaves and with light coloured flowers that shine out on the gloomiest winter day. Second, the elegant clumpers that push up long flower-bearing stems which nod gracefully, even when recovering from a heavy frost, and look terrific in full light.

Helleborus Niger and Helleborus Orientalis are categories that are often seen – the Christmas Rose and the Lenten Rose, respectively. As the names imply they are going to bring you winter and early spring flowering, spanning several months in the gardening year. This is further enhanced by the way in which the plant’s petals don’t drop, but gradually fade, becoming delicate and papery, with the seed pod prominent at their centre.

This year the hellebores seem to have had a slightly slow start, but are now getting fully into their stride.  They have maintained my interest from the first signs of movement to the gradual arrival of new stems and flowers. They require little attention, other than the clearing away of dying or blackening leaves. I do this just as they show signs of new growth and find that it works very well.

Each plant has something to offer for several months. After that it can be allowed to fade into the background, as summer plants and shrubs come into their own. I’m so pleased with the hellebores this year that I am resolved to acquire more. In a new border we see from the kitchen window I have got my first drift of half a dozen plants of the same species and form. Tall stemmed and elegant, they have been attracting interest since early in the year and seem to have plenty appeal in them yet.

The passing of the years sees me not at all bored with hellebores. Indeed, these most generous of plants just keep on giving.

First published in Garden Musings, 14th March 2022

PS 26th March 2023

The hellebores, regrettably have not been so good this year, perhaps struggling with the intermittent waves of frost, wind and rain, and the infrequent sunshine. These bedraggled examples below tell their own story. The good news however is that they will most likely be back in 2024 and who knows what pleasure they will bring in a better season?

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

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