Late winter sees the blooming of one of the few English cottage garden plants which still remain in my garden from those heady years when I really did believe I could recreate a scene from the Cotswolds in suburban Sydney. The hellebore is a beautiful and easy-going perennial for the shaded garden. It is sometimes known as the winter or Lenten rose, and it begins to bloom in July. The original plants were Helleborus orientalis but those seen now are generally complex crosses between that and various other hellebore species, and are known as Helleborus x hybridus and referred to colloquially as Orientalis Hybrids.
The large single or double, saucer-like, nodding flowers look as if they have been exquisitely sculpted from wax. Plant breeders have developed many fascinating colours such as pale yellow, near black, purple, slate-grey, green, greenish-pink, greenish-white, pink, clear white or dark plum. Recent hybrids include those with upward-facing blooms; others have frilled 'anemone' centres. The flowers are often spotted, veined or picotee-edged in a contrasting colour, and are very long lasting, remaining attractive until spring. Even as they age, they have a delicate charm. They make good winter floral arrangements floated in a bowl (make sure you put them in water as soon as they are cut so they don't wilt!).
These hellebores will succeed in Sydney gardens if given the right situation. They relish cool, humus-rich, reasonably moist but well-drained conditions and will not establish well in poor soil. Once they have settled in, however, they are long-lived and tough plants, forming large ground-covering clumps around 45-60 cm tall. When they are happy, they will self-sow quite prodigiously. The Orientalis Hybrids make a good groundcover under deciduous trees as long as there is not severe competition from fibrous roots. The pink or white blooms of shrubs such as Daphne, laurus tinus (Viburnum tinus), Magnolia, Camellia or even Abutilon can be matched with hellebores of similar or harmonising colours and will be in flower at the same time.
White hellebores also look very beautiful when grown near silvery-coloured plants which tolerate shaded positions, such as Lamium 'White Nancy' (ht 15 cm) or those with white or cream markings on their leaves such as the white-variegated form of Iris japonica (ht 30cm). The white-belled snowflake bulb (Leucojum aestivum, ht 45 cm) is an excellent companion, as it enjoys the same garden conditions, and has the same nodding characteristic to its blooms. Pink or purplish flowered hellebores look attractive with ground-covering plants with purple-suffused foliage which can grow in shade, such as Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea'. The dainty sprays of London pride (Crassula multicava, ht 25 cm) can also provide a pretty background, as the tiny pink and white stars of this tough succulent groundcover contrast with the bolder flowers of the hellebore. The cultivar of this succulent called 'Purple Dragon' is particularly alluring, with attractive purplish undersides to its leaves and pretty pink flowers. The darkest maroon flowered hellebores could be well matched by a fringe of ebony leaves of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', ht 25 cm), and they also look stunning paired with snowflakes.
Green and primrose yellow forms of these hellebores associate well with plain or variegated yellow or lime foliage plants which tolerate shady sites, such as shrubby Euonymus japonicus 'Aureus' (ht 1 m), the fine soft tufts of grassy Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' (ht 25 cm) or golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea', ht 8 cm). In early spring, they will look pleasing with the blue flowers of Pulmonaria (ht 30 cm), Ajuga (ht 15 cm), bluebells (ht 30 cm) and polyanthus.
Hellebores can be grown permanently in pots and placed in a prominent position once they are in bloom. They will need to be divided or else moved into larger pots as the clumps expand.
This blog was originally posted on 1 August 2009; updated 23 August 2020.
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