My love affair with hellebores began about 30 years ago, when I was a young sales representative for a wholesale plant nursery, Bayliss Nurseries. My job was to travel the length of the South Island in a tiny white van, selling trees, shrubs, and perennials to garden centres and nurseries. It was an experience that introduced me to some of the most generous people in the world – gardeners!
One of my favourite stops was to see Pat Stewart at the Wanaka Floral Studio, which, in spite of its name, was more of a nursery and open garden than a florist. When us fellow plant fanatics would get together, no-one could be trusted to keep to a time schedule, and hours tended to pass quickly as we trawled the dirt looking at rare and unusual plants. To me, Pat is the both the grandmother and godmother of hellebores in New Zealand as she has bred a number of cultivars.
Pat fell in love with the hellebore plant partly thanks to its hardy and robust nature, which meant it would thrive in Wanaka’s climate, but also because of the colour and life they bring to a garden in winter.
Most hellebores prefer a little protection from the harsh midday sun, so nestle them under trees and shrubs, or line them down the south side of your house where the soil doesn’t usually get as hot or dry.
To get the very best out of them, plant in a rich soil. If your soil is pale and dry, blend in a generous amount of organic matter, such as wellrotted manure or decomposed leaves, and then work in peat, sphagnum moss, or good-quality compost to ensure the topsoil holds plenty of moisture over the drier summer season. Whilst hellebores are drought-tolerant, if they get a regular amount of moisture over the warmer months, you will get twice the amount of flowers the following winter.
If you apply mulch and compost religiously each autumn, your plants will need little else, but if you really want to kick them along, a sidedressing of general fertiliser in spring and autumn will be well received.
On some hellebore hybrids, especially the Helleborus orientalis types, the leaves can become quite tatty and raggy over summer and autumn. To tidy them up, trim each leaf stem back to the base, which will encourage new leaves to shoot up as soon as the soil cools down.
A cut above
Did you know that hellebores make wonderful cut flowers? They are a beautiful option for a winter wedding, and their robust nature and rich colours mean they make a special addition to a bouquet or buttonhole. They are also perfect for a cemetery posy, as they cope with the outdoors equally well. The trick when using them in displays or arrangements is to wait until the first flowers on the stem are starting to form a seed pod before picking them, as this will ensure the stems are strong and have the rigidity to hold their form once placed in water. To extend the life of the flower once cut, trim the stems regularly and pierce them with pinpricks to help maintain a flow of moisture to the flower head. I always put mine into wet Oasis and they last for weeks.
Helleborus orientalis and its hybrids are quick to seed, so you will soon notice young seedlings appearing throughout summer and autumn, often nestled near to the parent plants. The young seedlings usually have a different shade to the parent due to natural hybridising, which just adds to their charm. The seedlings readily transplant, so give them plenty of room to naturalise under other trees and shrubs.
Debbie Pascoe, an Auckland-based plant lover, has the hellebore bug too, and no matter how full her garden is, she always finds time to plant any newly discovered gems. According to
Debbie, “Excitingly, in recent years hellebore breeders have realised that there is a real ‘gap’ when it comes to colour and enchantment in the winter months, so they’ve turned their talents to breeding increasingly wonderful colours and forms of the hellebore, or winter rose.”
Some of Debbie’s top picks are the stunning and vigorous ‘Penny’s Pink’ and ‘Anna’s Red’. I highly rate ‘Anna’s Red’ myself; last year mine flowered for at least four months and the rich dark-green foliage provided the most amazing contrast against the creamy green foliage of the surrounding variegated hebe.
For a great white, try the ‘Molly’s White’, which has striking foliage and lime flower accents. Spread out your flowering timeline with early flowering options such as ‘Angel Glow’ and the dusky pink ‘Ruby Glow’, and cover your hellebore addiction in late winter with the Helleborus orientalis types ‘Tutu’ and the fabulous ‘White Tutu’, which will enchant you with its ruffled and speckled flowers right through to late August.
I agree with Debbie that not enough is known about the humble hellebore, particularly that they are very happy to be kept as indoor plants for shorter periods of time. They can be enjoyed as an attractive pot plant for more than a month or two, then, when the flowers begin to fade, they can be planted out in either a pot or straight into the garden beds, where they’ll clump and build themselves up to give you years of winter pleasure.
A nice idea can be to collect some cuttings each year, then increase your garden bed assortment so both indoors and outdoors are enhanced by these beauties. Not only can you utilise the whole plant indoors, but established flowers in the garden can be used for cutting and in stunning bouquets as gifts or to enjoy yourself.
What you need to know
When to plant
- All regions: winter, spring and autumn.
Where to plant
- Partial shade is best; avoid full sun. Ideal patio or tub plant.
When to prune
- Hardly needed, just remove any tatty leaves in summer.
- Varies depending on the variety, allow 50cm between most hybrids.
Where to buy
- Your local Mitre 10 Garden Centre.