With their delicate looking petals and nodding heads, hellebores are the shy darlings of the late winter/early spring garden.
However, their delicate beauty belies their tough nature. These hardy perennials survive cool, frost-laden winters and tolerate many environments.
In the garden, flowers are long-lasting, appearing between July and October and essentially drying on the plant. But freshly picked flowers do not last long in the vase, although there are a couple of tricks you can try to prolong their life (see below).
Breeding has introduced a new colour palette to the hellebore range. Most hellebores at garden centres range in colour from white to deep purple, with various pinks and claret reds in between, some with spots and some with picotee edging. But greens (like Helleborus viridis and the rare Helleborus cyclophyllus), blues, yellows and apricots are available from specialist nurseries such as Clifton Homestead Nursery (hellebores.co.nz).
Most hellebores sold at garden outlets are Helleborus x orientalis or Helleborus x hybridus varieties, the latter being a cross between the former and various other hellebore species.
But the species hellebores themselves are worth growing. Take Helleborus foetidus, for example. Some might be put off by its common name, stinking hellebore, but it's well-worth growing. It has dramatic, deeply divided leaves with massive creamy-green cup-shaped flowers on stems that grow 60-90cm high. It tolerates a wider range of sites than most other hellebores; in colder weather it's colour deepens considerably.
Despite it's name, it has no objectionable odour when left to itself. The leaves, however, when crushed, do emit an unpleasant smell.
Clifton Homestead Nursery offers three hybrids of this species: Helleborus foetidus "Sopron", which has blue-green leaves and 60-centimetre-high flower stems; Helleborus foetidus "Gold Bullion", which has goldy-green leaves (the more sun it gets, the more yellow the leaves); and Helleborus foetidus "Wester Flisk", which is more compact at 40cm, and has distinctive red stems and leaf bracts.
I have several Helleborus x sternii, a hybrid of Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus lividus. They're not overly tall (mine are about 40cm high) but they have attractive toothy, blue-green foliage, burgundy stems and green flowers flushed with purple.
Hellebores are mostly easy-care plants. They grow well in a range of soils although it must be free-draining.
“The one thing everyone should know about growing hellebores - simply do not overwater them,” says Ken Telford, of Clifton Homestead Nursery. “I always say you can bring a hellebore that is completely dried out back to life, but you will never bring a hellebore back to life that has been overwatered.”
Hellebores like plenty of organic matter, so dig in lots of compost before planting.
Prepare deep beds, as most hellebores are deep-rooted. Digging deep to loosen soil lets roots grow unimpeded and allows an extensive root system to develop.
While hellebores are touted as shade-loving plants - and they do tolerate shady conditions - they generally grow best with some sun. Plants in deep shade grow sparsely. An open to partially shaded position is best.
Helleborus x sternii doesn't mind the sun at all, and Clifton Homestead Nursery's Helleborus x orientalis "Double Yellow" is a sun lover too. “The sunlight tends to intensify the yellow,” Telford says.
If you'd like to plant a mass of hellebores, try growing them from seed. But be aware, patience is a virtue. Plants won't flower until their third or fourth year.
Not many growers offer seed for sale, but you can find them at Egmont Seeds (egmontseeds.co.nz). Their hellebore seed-sowing instruction says: “Sow seeds and place in a germination chamber between 18 to 22 degrees Celsius for 14 to 21 days. Reduce the temperature to between 0C to 4C for 21 to 35 days. After chilling time, increase the temperature to between 16C to 20C to complete germination.”
That may sound complicated, but you could easily sow the seed in trays and keep them at room temperature for three to four weeks. Then place them in the fridge for the required cooling period. Sow seeds from now until October.
If you would like to pick blooms for the vase, you may want to condition them first to get the longest life out of them. Once picked, hellebores do not take up water, like other flowers do. Bear in mind too that, as for hydrangeas, the longer a stem has been in the garden, the longer it will last once picked.
Overseas florists often use this method for prolonging vase life. Place water and floral preservative in a saucepan and bring to the boil, then turn off the heat.
Recut the hellebore stems and immediately dip them in the boiled water, keeping the flower heads away from the steam. Leave them there for 10 to 20 seconds then place the cut flowers in a bucket of cool water for a few hours before arranging in a vase. This hot treatment forces the water and preservative up the stems to hydrate them.
You may find it easier to float the flower heads in a glass bowl - or to leave them blooming in your garden.
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