Winter flowering Hellebores

The two most popular winter flowering hellebores are the Christmas Rose and the Lenten Rose. Though frequently muddled, they are quite distinct.

The name Lenten Rose is now used to describe a group of plants which are the product of much cross-breeding. You will find them sold as Helleborus orientalis, or Helleborus x hybridus, or simply Hellebores. From the original colour range of pink, white and red, we now have a huge range of shades from white, yellow, palest pink to deepest plum, lime green, apricot and slatey purple. There are single and double forms, speckled petals and anemone centres. Breeding continues to extend the range, creating larger blooms on taller stems, and with upward and outward facing flowers.

They are invaluable plants for the winter garden, providing colour and interest at a sparse time of year. A mature clump will reach 30-45cm in height and spread. They are extremely hardy, ‘wilting’ worryingly after a severe frost only to perk up undamaged when the temperature rises later in the day. They do not make good cut flowers. Perhaps the best way to display them indoors is to float the upturned blooms in a shallow dish of water.

The Christmas Rose is Helleborus niger. About 30cm high and a little more across, it has dark, evergreen, hand-shaped leaves. The flowers are generally white, sometimes flushed pink. They may be single or double and have a prominent cluster of golden stamens. Despite its name, it cannot be relied upon to be in flower for Christmas.

From the original colour range of pink, white and red, we now have a huge range of shades from white, yellow, palest pink to deepest plum, lime green, apricot and slatey purple.

How to look after your Hellebores

Grow in a sheltered site in shade, or semi-shade. They are not fussy about pH but prefer a rich soil with plenty of humus and a site which is free-draining but does not dry out. Hellebores do not like to be moved so select a site where they can grow undisturbed. The evergreen leaves make a generous mound of foliage over the spring and summer. As flower shoots begin to emerge from the crown in New Year, the old foliage is best removed. This reveals the flowers, and helps pollinating insects. Do not compost diseased leaves. Hellebores will self-seed readily. Large clumps can be divided, but may take several years to settle down and flower well. Do not split into tiny pieces; they often die. A light feed may be given in spring if plants are not flourishing.

As flower shoots begin to emerge from the crown in New Year, the old foliage is best removed.

Hellebore problems

Hellebores are generally trouble free once established. Hellebore leaf spot is a common fungal problem affecting all species, especially H niger. Brown spots and blotches appear on the leaves and stems. These are unsightly but do not damage the plant. It is most active on newly growing leaves in spring. A much more serious problem is Hellebore Black Death. It is caused by a virus. Patterns of black streaking or netting appear on leaves, stems or flowers, causing distortion and collapse. There is no treatment so affected plants should be removed and destroyed.