A sign that the New Year is well underway and spring is not too far in the distance is the welcome sight of Hellebore plants in flower during the mid-winter/early spring garden. Hellebores begin to bloom in January and are often at their best during February. What a joy it is to see Hellebores growing alongside other winter beauties like Snowdrops, Aconites and Crocus.
I recently went along to Ashwood Nurseries, West Midlands, to have a tour of the Hellebore seed house and greenhouses, normally out of bounds to the public, and to hear one of their experts talk about the breeding work they do at the nursery and it was fascinating.
Firstly, two different hybrid plants are selected to cross pollinate to hopefully end up with a brand new variety. So, for example, a double petalled Hellebore and a double petalled inner spotted Hellebore are pollinated by hand with the aim of producing a double petalled spotted flowering Hellebore. The process can take years to eventually end up with the ideal plant.
That’s where patience and correct labelling are paramount and at Ashwood Nurseries they use coded letters and numbers to label the trialled plants, rather than names, and each one is then recorded in a ledger.
Once the pollinated plant has set seed, the new seeds are sown and it then takes three years before the seed finally flowers and the breeders can see if the plant looks like a winner. Seeds are then taken from the new plant and grown on again until it is ready to be given a name and is finally on sale in the garden nursery.
Hybrid Hellebores are available in many colours from white, cream, pale yellow, flushed pink, deep pink, purple, burgundy, lime and delicate peach hues. The nodding flowers and evergreen foliage each has its own distinctive features, whether it be bicoloured petals, spotted or speckled markings, double petals, dark centres or veining.
If you purchase a Hellebore in flower, it can be put straight into the garden or potted into a patio container to be enjoyed at close quarters from the living room chair. After flowering, plant into the garden border. Hellebores grow well under deciduous trees or shrubs in a free draining soil. They like winter sun and then, once the flowers fade, their preferred light is dappled shade where they can remain undisturbed in the border for many years or until they need dividing.
History of the Hellebore – The name of the Genus, Helleborus, derives from the Greek word ‘helein’ meaning killing and ‘bora’ meaning for food.
For centuries Hellebores have had many fascinating myths and stories relating to them. Hellebores have been used to win wars, as used by an invading army of the ancient city of Kirrha in 600 B.C. Plants were placed in the river by the invaders which poisoned the water drunk by the locals. Thus, their weakened stomachs ensured that the enemy were easily conquered. Even witches were said to have used the crushed roots of the Hellebore as a potion, for they contained an ingredient to bring on sneezing and thus release the body of evil spirits, so use that as an excuse next time you have a sneezing episode.
However, these days it is just the pure delight of seeing one of the first flowers of the year to bloom that makes the Hellebore such a special plant and I guarantee that once you have one Hellebore, you will want more and, like me, you will begin to increase your collection and have the pleasure of seeing them welcome in every New Year with a show of beauty.