PHILIPPA FOES-LAMB / NZ GARDENER
Ethereal greenish-white hellebores.
Hellebores first captured my heart many years ago when I saw them in a botanic garden.
The swathe of Helleborus angustifolia flowers looked so beautiful and contrasted exquisitely with the surrounding plants. I’ve admired many other hellebores since, but it’s Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose) and all of her beautiful variations that has me spellbound.
When we moved to Redwood Valley in September 2004, I was delighted to find a woodland area perfect for hellebores, with dappled light and leaf mould from surrounding trees. I spent the next few months conditioning the soil – adding lots of compost and sheep manure pellets before planting several Helleborus orientalis the following winter. Fourteen years later they are still thriving, flowering prolifically from midwinter through to late spring. I’ve added many more to my collection since then, including some exquisite anemone and double varieties.
Hellebores start to put on new growth in late autumn. They push lush, fat buds out of the soil at the base of the plants. This is the perfect time to give all species some loving care to help enhance their flowering, particularly Helleborus orientalis varieties.
* Hellebores: how to make them last
* Hellebores: garden stars of winter
* The good news about gardening on clay soil
In late April and May, I can be seen constantly peering down into my clumps, checking for signs of movement. As soon as I see buds poking through, I don my long gardening gloves and cut all the old foliage off at the base (wear long gloves for this as the foliage can irritate skin). Removing the foliage allows light into the centre of the clump which, in my experience, definitely increases the strength and number of the flower stems.
Sheep manure pellets are then spread thickly around the plants, making sure they don’t cover any of the buds. The pellets provide nutrients over a long period of time and are still effective in early spring when the soil starts to warm up, giving your plants an extra boost and lengthening the flowering period.
Cutting back the old foliage also means there is better air circulation around the crown of the plant which in turn makes them less susceptible to hellebore black spot. Black flowers and bracts are a sign of mild black spot but a serious infection can cause the entire plant to suddenly collapse and die.
Hellebores self-seed prolifically each season, creating a carpet of babies around the parent plants. If you don’t want lots of extra plants it’s a good idea to deadhead before the seed capsules dry and open.
Seedlings are best transplanted when they are small – larger seedlings resent having to move.
Hellebores thrive in humus-rich soil that retains some moisture during summer. I have them planted in all sorts of areas in my garden including full sun and – thanks to our Moutere clay – they survived the drought we had this past summer. The ones I had in my raised beds succumbed to the dry conditions.
If you have well-drained soil, it is best to plant them in semi or full shade.
Prepare the soil well before planting by digging in lots of compost and aged manure, and keep your plants fed and well-mulched all year round.
On the other hand, if your soil becomes waterlogged easily, you will need to add plenty of grit to help improve drainage.
The colour palette of Helleborus orientalis is divine: soft pastel shades in hues of lemon, sage green and soft pink, peach, white and rich plum, through to dark burgundy with intense cream stamens or interiors that are smothered in plum spots. Anemone and double varieties are exquisite too, like tutus on stems.
Breeders have been working hard on Helleborus orientalis varieties for many years. There are now quite a lot available with flowers that “look at us”, and over the years I’ve noticed some of my seedlings are producing more upright flowers, which is very exciting.
I can’t imagine my garden without these gorgeous creatures. I love bringing them into the house and up until now have just floated the flowers in bowls of water. Last year someone suggested putting them in a vase with water right up to the top of the stems and it worked! They lasted for just over a week.
Create a sticky tape grid over the top of your vase to make it easy to arrange flowers in.