I have it on good authority that I have “too many hellebores” because Bob Brown (a nurseryman with a strong resemblance to Father Christmas) told me so the last time he came to my garden. I tend to agree, although I didn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that. I’ve acquired more since – of course. John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries (www.ashwoodnurseries.co.uk), the nearest place to heaven on earth, generously gave me five this year and I shall find room for them along with another I bought. I imagine Bob changing his pronouncement to FAR too many hellebores.
You see, I belong to the Shoehorn School of Gardening. I plonk it in, preferably before the Best Beloved returns home to say “where are you going to put that.? One day I shall tell him and he won’t like the answer! In fact all the hellebores in this garden have been plonked in since I moved here in December 2005. I dug lots up up from my old garden and moved them, but if you’re moving make these kinds of things clear in the legal contract ro you could be in trouble. They were planted and then they flowered, so there wasn’t a chance of gathering all the pinks together in one area, for instance. The hellebores mingle through the garden like bad-taste dolly mixtures.
They’ve also gone backwards because the woodland garden is down by the spring and they would prefer better drainage, but they still give me pleasure. In the early stages of the year, perhaps the first four weeks, they are full of nectar and pollen and I love to see Buff-tailed bumble bee queens flitting through them. After the nectaries and stamens have dropped, the shell of the flower remains because the outers are rugged sepals rather than soft petals. Hellebores will give at least three months of interest in the garden and hybrid hellebores live for decades.
Not surprisingly most gardeners adore them, although Christopher Lloyd once referred to helle-bores, for those people who droned on about them incessantly. It didn’t stop him growing them though, or waxing lyrical about them either, for hellebores come in a rainbow of colours and flower forms and we all have our favourites. I am partial to red-spotted green singles because they remind me of green woodpeckers who ‘yaffle’ from the trees round the cottage. They fly in loops, almost as if they’re skiing on the nursery slopes.
I like slates too, although all dark hellebores are notoriously difficult to place, merging with the bare earth all too easily. I have some growing close to blue hyacinths, bulbs that once graced the kitchen window sill. Once these heavy-headed hyacinths are planted out they regress into willowy large bluebells, rather like tulips I feel that less is more once the flowers begin to diminish from florist’s fantasy to gardener’s wilding. The garden worthy blue hepatica. H. x media ‘Harvington Beauty’ mingles among others slates and blacks. You could equally well plant blacks and slates in front of rich-green evergreens, ones that keep their leaves whatever the weather. Daphne laureola, our native Spurge laurel, has glossy green rosettes of foliage topped by lime-green flowers. It’s not as exotic as Daphne pontica, but a hell of a lot easier.
Pink is a very strong hellebore shade and I once saw a swathe of them, all slightly different in form, surrounding a small tree smattered with clusters of pink berries thinned y winter weather. These pink berries often linger, left by the birds in most winters, so this was a tasteful combination put together by someone who clearly wasn’t a member of the Shoehorn Gardening Society. I could almost hear Gertrude Jekyll, the doyenne of tasteful and restrained planting, applauding. This readily available grey-leafed rowan, Sorbus pseudohupehensis ‘Pink Pagoda’ AGM, is one of the easier ones.
Yellow hellebores, or any colours close to yellow, often flower earlier in the year and frost can blacken the tips of the flowers, so place them carefully in a sheltered position. Don’t panic if you see black tips to the flowers, this isn’t Hellebore net necrosis virus (HeNNV), or Black Death. That reduces the whole plant to a stunted, black-streaked mess. There’s only one cure, dig it up and bin it quicker than you can say helle-bore.
All the Hybrid Hellebores (H. x hybridus) are seed-raised these days and not divided. Hellebores, although amenable to being moved in their rootball, resent being chopped into small pieces, so if you want to divide them chop them into two or three large chunks and replant or pot up immediately. They do and will set seeds. However I prefer to deadhead in early May, or perhaps sooner in this extraordinarily precocious year, to prevent seedlings. I like to keep the vigour in the mother plant, but you may want seedlings. The choice is yours and every garden centre and nursery will probably have some hellebores for sale. Look for healthy foliage and consistent flowers. If you decide to collect seeds, sow immediately.
In order to keep hellebore foliage healthy, it’s best to remove all the foliage in early December. New leaves will appear with the flowers. They are prone to a black spot disease which produces dark patches rather than spots. If you see any dark leaves, remove them to prevent it spreading. Finally feed them and I prefer the slow-release, high-potash Vitax Q4 for mine. I like two doses. On in September and one in May.
Hellebore breeding continues apace and some of the complex hybrids are sterile, they don’t set seed, so they are micropropagated instead. There’s a Marbled Series bred by Rodney Davey of R.D. Plants that includes the ruby-red ‘Anna’s Red’, named after Anna Pavord, and ‘Penny’s Pink’. They have marbled, dark-green foliage frosted in shades of pink and silver so leave these leaves intact! They are, at the moment, readily available but with micropropagated plants there is always the chance they will disappear due to mutations, or sudden decline, or when they don’t sell. Both are hardy and long-lived, like most gardeners.