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Hellebores are never a bore

Hellebores are never a bore

  • Ciar Byrne says hellebores can light up a border when little else is in flower
  • They are part of the buttercup family and hardier species are weather-resistant
  • Gardener adds most hellebores are best planted under deciduous shrubs 

Hellebores are known as winter roses. And quite right, too, given how they light up a border when not much else is in flower. But a word of caution: theirs is a poisonous beauty. 

The name comes from the Greek words elein, meaning to injure, and bora, meaning food, suggesting that if consumed in large quantities hellebores are toxic. 

In Greek myth, hellebores were used as both a poison and a cure. A tincture made from hellebore roots was added to the water supply when Kirrha was besieged in the 6th century BC, leaving its citizens so sick they were unable to defend their city. And when the god Dionysius sent the daughters of Argos mad, a physician used hellebores to restore their sanity.

If handled correctly they can have medicinal properties and were used by early herbalists as a purgative to treat a range of conditions, although I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. Witches are also believed to have used them to summon demons.

Ciar Byrne says hellebores were used as a poison and a cure in Greek myth but now they can ‘light up a border when not much else is in flower’

MOUNTAIN HIGH

Native to southern and central Europe, and found mainly in mountainous areas, hellebores were one of the first plants imported to Britain, said to have been brought by the Romans. 

They are a member of the buttercup family, ranunculaceae, and the hardier species are weather-resistant, because the exteriors of their cup-like flowers are made up of tough sepals. 

The most versatile variety, of which I have several in my own garden, is H. x hybridus, commonly known as Lenten roses or oriental hellebores. These come in a wide colour palette ranging from white, through cream, apricot, pale pink and magenta to blackish purple. 

The darker cultivars contrast well with white snowdrops, while the softer pinks look good next to blue scillas. They are often speckled and can be single or doubleflowered, sometimes with ragged edges. So buy and plant seedlings now while in flower, so you know what they will look like. 

The best hybrids include Anna’s red, Double Ellen White and Harvington pink speckled. 

Flowers don’t come true from seed and can only be replicated by division, a process they don’t take kindly to. If you do want to divide them, take a section from the edge of a plant rather than splitting it in the middle.

They are happier being transplanted whole in early spring and prefer moist, well-drained soil and partial shade, although they will tolerate full sun.

IN IT TO WIN IT

Hellebores hate competition, but most are content when planted under deciduous shrubs, where they can enjoy the limelight in late winter. 

Single-flowered hellebores produce nectaries that are a welcome food source for early bees, although later in the season, these will fall off. The seedheads are best removed to preserve the plant’s vigour, and the seed should be sown immediately after collecting. 

H. foetidus or stinking iris are bigger than the oriental hellebores with nodding clusters of greenish white flowers against dark-green palmate leaves. 

Together with H. argutifolius, the holly-leaved hellebore which has mock prickles on its foliage, they look good in a woodland garden alongside lily-of-thevalley (Convallaria majalis). 

H. niger, or the Christmas rose, is a more delicate species, best grown in containers or raised beds, where it goes well with primroses. They are smaller than the hybrids, with pure white or pinkish blooms against dark foliage. 

All varieties are prone to hellebore leaf spot, which causes black or brown patches on the leaves, which should be removed and burnt or disposed of separately from other garden waste. 

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