It seems odd to say this, but one of the joys of curating a maturing garden is the presence of shade: particularly the shade of deciduous trees and shrubs. Plants that adore this niche are in themselves quite adorable.
There are many woodland plants that make the most of the winter sunshine.They carry out many of their biological functions while the canopy is clear, making use of the light to photosynthesise and to use the resultant energy to reproduce. It is also while the limbs above are bare that seedlings, from last year’s seed that has been awakened by the cold, emerge in little clusters between established clumps.
Today I am talking about the more common evergreen perennial hellebore hybrids (Helleborus xhybridus) that have developed from the acaulescent species such as H. orientalis, H. viridis, H. atrorubens etc. (Acaulescent means they don’t grow a stem.)
Why are these hellebores so popular?
Their flowers are beautiful. They flower in winter. They flower over a long period. They are seemingly immortal. It is hard not to have success with them (as long as they get some moisture over summer), their foliage is green and glossy and interesting even when they are not in flower and they form a dense weed excluding ground cover. They will happily grow in the rooty soil beneath trees. There is an endless variety in the flower forms that are available. And they are easily maintained (they do need some maintenance, if they are to look their best, but more of that later).
I was given a tray of seedling hellebores twenty years ago by my friend and gardening mentor John Grenville from his own garden. I was thrilled to find as they grew and flowered (quite quickly within two to three years from seed) that they came in a range of colours and patterns: whites with a greenish tinge, white with reddish splotches, plain pink, pink heading toward purple, pink marked with purple spots. And gradations of these colours with washes and edges and splotches and stains. At some point a named variety was introduced maybe ‘Single Plum Purple’, and it has had a little influence in one part of the expanse of hellebores beneath some Japanese maples.
There are a few nurseries around the country that specialise in these adorable plants. You might have heard of Post Office Farm Nursery in Victoria or Tasmainian Select Hellebores. Their ranges of cultivars are mouth watering.
My preference though remains for the unimproved and for the simple single flowers. Even though some species have naturally occuring double forms, I find some of the pointier doubles a little too artificial and the petticoat of petal-like sepals diminishes the classic hellebore flower shape. There. I have said it.
So I think you know where you can grow them, in soil that is rich in humus beneath a deciduous tree. I suggest you apply a composted mulch each year, but don’t cover the crown, it might interfere with flowering.
Check for insect pests like aphids and scale. These might cause distortion in the leaves and flower buds. They don’t seem to reduce the vigour of the hellebores, but I like to treat heavy infestations, with a garden oil to prevent them spreading to other plants in the garden.
The only other regular maintenance they need is an annual haircut before flowering. Craig Wilson from Gentiana Nursery tells me he mows over his larger plantings in Autumn. This removes the old leaves that can spoil the effect of the flowering in winter as they die. What about photosynthesis, I hear you ask. Well, hellebores are rather clever. They send up some brand new leaves that unfurl as the flower matures, to fuel flowering and seed production.
I wonder have you ever taken the time to bend down and have a look right into a hellebore flower’s face? It is worth getting down amongst the leaf mould in your happily maturing garden.