Few flowers dare to show their faces in the colder months but hellebores defy the odds, pushing through frozen ground to light up the gloom with luminous blooms.
As the days shorten and Arctic winds blow in from the north, the garden falls into its annual slumber and the long wait for spring begins. But just as memories of summer have faded, fresh green shoots appear on hellebores, followed by exquisite flowers in jewel-like colours ranging from glittering whites and yellows to deep purples and reds.
Hellebores are easy to grow, require little maintenance, have foliage year-round, and will continue to flower for years. And, the best thing about them, hellebores create a continuous flower display from December right through to May, just in time for the rest of your garden to really come to life.
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Where is the best place to plant hellebores?
Hellebores are ideal for semi-shade – or plant the spiny-leaved Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius) in sunnier sites.
Hellebores are tolerant of a wide range of growing soil types, but hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus) in particular will do best if you plant them in rich, most, well-draining soil. These hybrid hellebores are, however, pretty tough and really low maintenance.
While they are pretty easy to care for, these are the experts' top tips:
John Massey, owner of Ashwood Nurseries, recommends a moist, well-drained soil with added leafy compost, especially for H. niger.
Penny Dawson of Twelve Nunns Nursery says that feeding plants with seaweed fertiliser in autumn, February and April, when they are developing new leaves, will deliver the best results.
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Do hellebores do well in pots?
We love hellebores in pots because you can move them towards your garden door in cold weather – then hide them further down the garden in the summer months when they're less interesting.
For the best results, ensure the pot drains well and that the soil within it is rich – and keep the pot topped up with compost to encourage continual healthy growth and flowering.
Another tip that's apposite to planting hellebores in pots: remember that the flowerheads droop downwards, so use the flexibility of container planting to position your hellebores where the flowerheads can be seen – perhaps on a windowsill, in a raised bed or on top of a low wall.
When should hellebores be cut back?
Ideally, prune hellebores in later winter/early spring when new growth appears. This growth will manifest as little stalks which will still be surrounded by a ring of older, larger leaves that may be a little damaged or bedraggled from last year's cold weather.
It's these older, damaged leaves that you can remove to make room for the new growth. Old leaves that still have a pleasing shape needn't be pruned, unless they have any signs of disease (check the undersides, too) but can be left until new leaves start to appear. Leave things too late, though, and the new and old growth will become indistinguishable and difficult to separate.
For aesthetic reasons, pruning away excess foliage also allows the hellebores' blooms to shine.
How to prune hellebores
Simply slice the old leaves off at the base, as near to the soil as you can get. Wear gloves while you do this as hellebore sap can irritate the skin, and the tiny thorns will prickle, too.
Should hellebores be deadheaded?
No one likes to look at old flowers, and deadheading can benefit a plant's growth. It's easy to deadhead hellebores: simply carefully snap off the old flower stems when they start to decline and before they set seed, taking them back to the base of the stem. There are exceptions to this rules – the Bear's Foot, which should be left alone.
Are hellebores evergreen?
The majority of hellebores are herbaceous perennials, with many as evergreens that will provide foliage year-round and a floral display for around six months from December.
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Which hellebores to grow? The experts answer
Best hellebores for color
Owner of Ashwood Nurseries John Massey recommends the sparkling white Helleborus niger Ashwood Strain and one of the many H. x hybridus Ashwood Garden Hybrids for flowers before Christmas, with ‘Penny’s Pink’, sporting marbled, pink-flushed foliage, following on in February.
Best hellebores for containers
Award-winning designer Rosemary Coldstream advises planting Lenten roses (H. x hybridus) in a raised bed so that you can see their nodding flowers more clearly, and for pots, she suggests H. x ericsmithii ‘Ruby Glow’ with its pink upward-facing flowers.
Best hellebores for borders
‘In borders, I prefer the more naturalistic form of H. x sternii, its pretty veined leaves contrasting with pinky-green flowers,’ she adds.
Penny Dawson of Twelve Nunns Nursery suggests her favorite ‘Harvington Single Smokey’ for borders. ‘Its subtle purple-blue colour is striking when teamed with white, lime or yellow flowers,’ she says.
Additional words: Zia Allaway