Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Lenten rose and other hellebores

Helleborus orientalis The lenten rose.

I have many fine plants in my garden. Brenda scolds me that when plants are expensive, or difficult to propagate, I only have one! On the other hand easily propagated plants are rather well represented. In the case of lenten roses they are all over the place! They litter my cemetery gardens and are threatening to do the same on the village plot. They are very fine plants, yet today, this dull misty, typical Vale of York grey March morning, I feel rather jaundiced about them. I have loved hellebores for forty years. It’s bit like a marriage and one becomes complacent about a plant’s fine qualities. I have made a list of the reasons why they should regain my esteem.

  • They flower prolifically for three months and come into flower in February when flowers are so welcome. Unfortunately except for some exciting new varieties their flowers nod to the ground. You need to get on your knees….
  • The individual flowers have exquisite beauty. Although they do not completely come true from seed, every new plant is of remarkable quality and normally not very dis-similar to its parent.
  • They have the potential to naturally seed themselves and naturalise to make fine large clumps.
  • They grow anywhere. Dry situations in shady woods right through to full sunshine in somewhat wet places. They thrive in all manner of soils, be they light or heavy, acid or alkali. They infiltrate into all manner of places such as cracks and crevices between rocks and paving.
  • They even recover from a careless glyphosate spray!
  • Their fine glossy foliage shines throughout the whole year - but read on about leaf disease.
  • The plant is completely hardy - although this March, almost uniquely, a few of my plants exposed to strong, persistent, dry winds when they were hard frozen, were scorched.
Glyphosate spray

Easy to propagate from seed.

All these hellebores  have been raised from seed. The top six are small variations on their parents. The bottom two species for practical purposes ‘come true’.

Most garden species of helleborus  seed themselves freely and germinate when the soil is still cold in January and February. In gardens where proper weed control is established the seedlings are prolific and perhaps more important, not hidden, or worse overgrown. They can be left to naturalise or be carefully eased-out of the ground to be grown-on in seed or potting compost. Young plants move very well with little check. In my own case I frequently lift out one and two year-old plants and pot them up for sale on open days several months later.

Self sown plants move very readily
If you prick out newly germinated seed they will take three years to produce flowering plants. This might seem a long time to impatient propagators. The fun of having gardened a long time is that you have maturing young plants in your nursery system and each year are rewarded with fine new plants.

Last summer I pricked out two dozen of self sown ‘Broughton Beauty’ ( I still have twenty!)
Vegetative propagation by division
This is the only way to raise new stock of genetically identical, named helleborus varieties - if you are new to horticulture read this link In the past and without much enthusiasm, I have used a sharp spade to slice out large divisions and have  planted them in client’s gardens. If lifted and planted in late autumn they have already initiated flower buds and flower well in Spring, only to disappoint the following year!
Planted at other times they just sulk for a year or two before they become established. I think you might divine I am not too keen!
Removing old leaves
Recently some blogs I follow, have questioned the practice of cutting back old leaves in Autumn. It does seem a pity when the leaves still are healthy and glossy. Why reduce all that photosynthetic activity and weaken the plants? They may have a point but I have no intention of changing my established practice at this stage. I do however wait  until Christmas before cutting them back!  There are two sound reasons to cut back. 
  • Disease control. There are a quite a large number of fungal leaf diseases that will badly disfigure hellebores. Cutting back leaves and removing them from the site is an important cultural control which gives new growth a clean start.
  • Fresh new leaves appear alongside new flowers which are much more attractive when not hidden by old leaves.
Leaf spot disease
Helleborus orientalis can be completely cut to the ground - assuming new flowers have not yet appeared. Such harsh cutting back may not be appropriate with other species that carry flowers on the old stem structure. With such plants it is best to carefully remove individual diseased leaves.

Writing this post seems to have restored my enthusiasm for hellebores. I have splashed out on  three plants from Ashwoods Nurseries today!


  1. They are very pretty flowers. I love to look at everyone's photos of them.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

  2. There are a lot of nice Lenten roses on various blogs. Perhaps with Easter round the corner there will be some more. Hopped over to your blog from Ohio and enjoyed your hostas- all slug free!

  3. I totally agree with your list of benefits of the Hellebores. And yes I also buy sometimes one expensive plant, which gives us when we are a bit lucky plenty of beautiful seedlings. What concerns cutting old leaves, I always remove individual diseased leaves at once and when they start flowering, I cut almost all leaves, except the nice looking ones.

    1. That's the artists touch Jannecke. I agree I tend to cut away some nice leaves. Some of us tend to be "all or nothing!" Yes I bought three expensive plants, two yellow varieties and one black. I won't be taking Ashwoods advice to preserve vigour by not letting them seed. Actually the plants have already arrived and they are very nice plants. Two of them are actually flowering- very fine plants.

  4. Good post. I've resisted planting any Hellebores but I think this year I will take the plunge. That first Lenten Rose is my favorite, with the dotted white petals.

    1. And the dotty one comes almost true from self sown seed, Jason.

  5. Pleased you've regained your enthusiasm Roger. I'm going to follow your comments on a previous blog of mine and allow some of them to set seed - so a thank you for the encouragement/kick up the bum I needed ;)
    I tend to get the excitement of new plants through buy more - a practice I really need to get rid of!
    Perhaps you can answer an Hellebore question I have - one of my Orientals have their foliage turn to purple? It is not a mature plant - part of a selection of 6 I bought last year. The others have stayed green and have flowers this year. Other than the colour it looks healthy enough and doesn not resemble 'hellebore black death' images I have seen on 'net.

    1. Yes I have been inspired by reading other people blogs, Angie. Helen Johnstone, the patient gardener pictured a very fine yellow one which I ordered from Ashwoods for a tenner. It arrived carrying six lovely yellow flowers. I hope to collect seed this year!
      As to your question Angie I suggest if it holds its colour for a few more months you might have a very nice plant. I bought a black flowered one from Ashwoods and it has very dark foliage. Err, I think I am giving myself away that I write some of my posts in advance.....

  6. I didn't cut back my leaves on ours at all this year. They started flowering in January and are still going strong. They are in a bed that is raised behind a wall that is about three feet high in places down to about two feet in others so we get to appreciate the flowers more. We have loads of seedlings growing around the plants but none have got to flowering size yet.

    1. Thanks for this Sue. I saw your hellebores on your recent blog, they looked really good - and so many. Yes, it really is a good idea planting them in an elevated border.
      As to removing the leaves I wonder if you will have to eventually cut them out and that might that be more fiddley than doing it all at once. I must admit I don't bother cutting back my seeded plants less than two years old, removing the leaves would check them more than I want- but I I do find that like in my picture of young plants, they eventually need cutting.

  7. You've got a very nice selection there, I particularly like the one in the first photo. I bought my first helebore last year, and I'd like to add to this as they're such lovely flowers. A good doer which we all like for our gardens.

    1. A very good gardening term Jo, 'a good doer' says such a lot about a plant.

  8. I'm a hellebores fan too as they are perfect for my semi shaded North Lancashire garden sitting on the limestone belt (which comes across from the Yorkshire Dales!)
    I follow a neighbours lead and cut out all of the old leaves once the new buds start to set ,which then makes for a fine display.I let them self seed but should invest in a few new colours especially the yellows.

    1. I am very pleased with the ones I have ordered and am looking forward to getting seed.

  9. I love hellebores - I have come late in life with my passion for them; having lived in warmer climes, it has taken me some years to cherish those plants that spring out of the ground so early and to appreciate their delicate and sometimes unusual beauty. I have some of the white speckled variety, and some deep pink. My mother is nursing in her garden a black one that I bought and had nowhere to plant. We had builders in a few years back who reduced our limited space to a builder's yard. I lost a small flowered and delicate pink variety at that time. Having concrete dust and piles of bricks dumped on it was sadly more than it could cope with. A friend this last winter gave me a pure white one in a gift pot, which I have kept on the kitchen windowsill - it will get planted out when the weather has warmed a little. (I now have a new old-brick patio which needs planting around). My love of the plants is more about the perfect clump that they produce after a year or so!
    I have a couple of questions about them for you: I saved seeds from the white window ledge ones - when should I plant them? (and thanks for the info about them taking a year or two to flower - I might have despaired!) Also, my mum has had some beautiful ones (She called them Christmas Roses) since I was a child (52 now), but after I gave her some pink ones as a gift 2 years ago - they seem to have cross pollinated and are no longer white - they are all mid pink. I feel terribly guilty about this. I have 2 clumps in my garden - as I said earlier, growing about a yard apart and they have not done this. What went wrong with mum's and why??

  10. You would have best sown them the same day you collected them. Sow them today and let them get some cold! There seems to be some winter remaining! They are one of those seed that require cold before they will germinate.
    As to your mother's, if it is the Christmas rose Helleborus niger it will not cross with the Lenten rose. Your mum perhaps misidentified it. If your mum's crossed and set seed the pink ones might have taken over. Its just serendipity that yours have not crossed, just chance, in where the pollen came from.
    I can see you are going to get great enjoyment Jane, from your plants in the future

  11. Thanks - I will get outside today and plant those seeds. Would putting them in the fridge / freezer help? I have enough to experiment.

    I love reading your blog as it coincides with what is actually happening in the garden outside, and I love all the other comments that people leave - I'm learning a lot!

    1. Yes try all three. The fridge will probably best - try three weeks,and as you have some spare try the freezer. Those sown outside or in the cold greenhouse might still get sufficient cold, but dare I be selfish and say "I hope not!"
      If they do not germinate very well leave them in their pots/seedtrays/ground until next Spring!


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