As Christmas and the excitements of New Year festivities passes by leading us into another season you may be excused for having a little bit of winter blues; but don’t despair, the weather has been steadily improving and with it, spring marches inexorably forward, bringing with it some delightful garden plants.
It is at this time of the year that two groups of plant fanatics really start to getting excited; Snowdrop enthusiasts (Galanthophiles) and Hellebore lovers, (often said to be suffering from Helleboritis)!
Winter provides a relatively short season of interest and one which is often affected by the weather, but as true ‘All Weather Gardeners’, these hardy, passionate plant people can be seen visiting gardens on the coldest days to enjoy the delights of these plants. I must confess that I am a Snowdrop (Galanthus) collector and have been doing so for a few years, steadily building my collection. Having formerly worked at Hadlow College lecturing in Horticulture and Garden Design, I have some considerable experience of working with and growing Hellebores too, holding, as they do, a NCCPG National Collection of Helleborus. H. x hybridus 'Yellow Double' (Main Picture)
Both plants have their merits and followers, but undeniably, both have BIG presence at this time of year. With fewer flowering plants in mid-late winter than at other times of the year, showstoppers are a must for the garden and Hellebores provide that show stopping pizzazz better than any other perennial plant between January and March.
These early flowers provide more than colour though; they herald the spring and with it, provide a source of food for some early-bird insects like bumblebees and even the occasional butterfly that has woken from its winter slumber a little ahead of schedule.
Though poisonous to eat and having a potentially skin irritating sap, they have the advantage of requiring little or no maintenance and so rarely cause problems for the sensible gardener.
There are approximately 20 species of Hellebore, many of which make excellent garden plants, but for this week’s blog post, I will be discussing just 3 species, Helleborus x hybridus, H. foetidus and H. niger.
Helleborus x hybridus (Formerly H. orientalis)
H. x hybridus is better known to most gardeners as the Lenten Rose, an extremely variable plant offering by far the broadest range of flower colours, patterns and shapes available to the Hellebore grower, largely due to its mixed parentage. An easy plant to grow tolerating a wide range of soil conditions and sunlight levels, this plant is a great value for money splash of winter colour. Hundreds of named varieties and colour selections are available, with more being added every year. We grow plants raised by an acclaimed Belgian Hellebore breeder as they have proven to be disease resistant and of good colour. Though promiscuous and quick to set very fertile seed in your garden, be aware that seedlings are often not true to colour. This can, of course, make for some amazing colour combinations and your seedling could be the next big thing! Though there are a great many to choose from, my favourite (at the moment) is H. x hybridus ‘Black’ (Pictured), which has a great flower colour and a really well-shaped petal.
To grow the healthiest and most floriferous plants, I would recommend improving soil texture through the incorporation of well-rotted leaf mould, horse manure or composted bark. These allow roots to get that little deeper and plants to get bigger.
TOP TIP – Remove all foliage from the plant in late October, taking care not to damage any flower shoots that may be poking their heads up from underground. By doing this, you are sure to see the flowers in all their glory. Don’t compost the cut foliage as it doesn’t degrade well and is a common way of spreading fungal diseases that Hellebores are susceptible too - far better to bag them and bin them.
Rather unkindly called the Stinking Hellebore, this superb garden plant proves time and time again that it is one of the most versatile Hellebores available and a great garden plant. Typically displaying the longest flowering season of any Hellebore with flowers reliably produced from late autumn to late spring. The smell, from which it gets its common name is reminiscent of the foliage of Elder (Sambucus) trees, but was once, most favourably described to me as smelling of ‘Green’. Of course, that is to say, that the smell isn’t really very strong, pungent or even particularly unpleasant.
I am a huge fan of green flowered plants; so confident of their beauty that they don’t feel the need to stand out against their foliage! Most people when selecting plants for their garden ignore the value of green as a colour taking it for granted as the common background hue that binds the various horticultural delights of the planted space together. Green flowers are cool – in the colour sense as well as in their desirability and charismatic charm. Unlike H. x hybridus types, H. foetidus flowers are produced on top of the foliage, so it is not a good idea to prune these before flowering. You can prune them after seed has been set in order to encourage them to produce more stems, though this is not essential.
There are a number of named forms available with recent developments coming in the form of yellow foliage varieties. The selected form we sell at Coblands is called H. foetidus ‘Yellow Wilgenbroek’ (Pictured), which has proven itself to be a good grower and a beautiful plant.
By far the greatest strength of H. foetidus is its ability to grow nearly anywhere. At its best providing a green carpet under the shade of trees and large shrubs, though it also grows well in full sun. Though it can take wetter soils than other Hellebores, it does prefer decent drainage.
TOP TIP – let this plant seed! Though seedlings will be slightly variable, they are generally quite similar to parents and a good swathe of them is a terrific sight to behold.
The Christmas Rose – Perhaps another misnomer as I’m yet to see it flowering in gardens at Christmas, typically getting started in late January and flowering through until early March. Pure white flowers are held on short stems that range in colour between a rich red and a creamy green. This is another plant that benefits the viewer by having its foliage removed, though this is less important than it is on H. x hybridus as the foliage is less dense.
A classic winter garden plant and understandably common fodder for Christmas cards, this is a great symbol of purity and an elegant, refined, yet cheery and optimistic beauty that has long delighted UK gardeners.
In recent times, a few named varieties have added to the species and one of particular note is H. niger ‘Double Fashion’ (Pictured). I’m not generally a big fan of double flowered plants, but try to take everything on its individual merits and this has proven to be a plant that I really rate. A fairly regular double that is not overly blousy, still embodying the qualities that I mentioned previously, only adding the addition of a bit more in the way of ‘white’ to each flower.
A desirable clone and one that is not widely available, but well worth growing lacking nothing in vigour or floriferous and like all H. niger types relatively uncomplicated in its approach to life. It will grow in a wide variety of soils and sites, preferring ‘woodsy’ soils rich in well-rotted organic matter in a slightly shady spot where it will stand out like a beacon when flowering.
TOP TIP – plant with Pulmonaria varieties for a foliage and flower contrast.
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