An Alternative Valentine's Tale

14 Feb 2017

 

I have never grown a Hellebore to the point of flowering, and I am much the worse off for it.

 

Three years ago, my mother in law gave me some self-hybridised garden seedlings which I planted under a small plum tree alongside spring bulbs. But of course Hellebores take a few years to flower, so I will never get to see the garden ‘sports’ she had produced because last year we moved house. I did take a lot of plants with me but I couldn’t take everything…

 

For me Hellebores are an example of the miracle of nature, that such a dainty, subtle beauty thrives in the coldest, darkest, greyest time of year.

 

Although I haven’t had Hellebores get as far as flowering in my garden, I did do my research on how to look after those seedlings.

 

They can be prone to fungal black spot on their leaves (I found this seemed to affect the older, larger leaves more) so the year-old leaves should be removed in winter (when the buds start to form if you have any). Some people remove all the leaves altogether, and the plants don’t seem to mind, but I leave any young leaves on. If your Hellebores are flowering, this has the added advantage of ensuring the leaves aren’t shading or covering the flowers.

 

What look like large ‘petals’ on a Hellebore are in fact the sepal; the petals are the small green/brown fleshier shapes that form a ring around the stamen.

 Well, on Saturday I was in my local town centre heading to find my husband and a bit disappointed after an unfruitful trip to the florist to try and find some interesting spring flowers to have a play with, when across the road outside the greengrocers I spied a group of Hellebores with flowering stems about two feet high, and felt a little jolt of excitement.

 

Upon crossing the road and making a closer inspection, I was smitten. I chose three Helleborus orientalis (choosing the ones that were in flower, as they can be varied because they cross-breed so easily) and two of the smaller Helleborus niger.

 

Being a both a horticulture and floristry enthusiast can create something of a dilemma; I often find it very hard to bring myself to cut the flowers I grow, as I know they usually wont last as long as they would left on the plant. The exception being, of course, the likes of sweetpeas, dahlias and most annuals where I know cutting the blooms will promote more flowering so I am more than happy to bring them indoors.

 

Hellebores on the other hand are one of those flowers that don’t really like to be cut. They are fine for a bouquet or buttonhole, but they only really look their best for three days or so in a vase. On the other hand, as I reasoned with myself, the weather is so foul at the moment- and the daylight hours I have at home are so minimal- I really wouldn’t get to see them much in the garden.

 

So, cut them I did. A good way to reliably keep Hellebore flowers going for a few days when cut is to leave on an inch or so of stem on and float them in water. This also means the flowers face upwards so you can really admire them, rather than have them hanging down as they tend to do when left on the stem.

 As for the plants themselves: Helleborus niger is known as the ‘Christmas Rose’. It is one of the smaller, earliest-flowering Hellebores and has pure white flowers (the ‘Niger’ apparently referring to the black roots). In the wild it grows where the snow melt washes down, so it needs to be well-watered when in flower, but not at other times. It also prefers a sheltered spot and the buds are a delicacy for slugs so I will need to watch out for that in my slug-haven of a garden.

 

Helleborus orientalis is known as the ‘Lenten Rose’ and is larger, and later-flowering. Although labeled as orientalis, the plants I have are possibly a hybrid of the original orientalis, there are many available as they cross- pollinate very easily and there is a whole industry around cross-fertilising Hellebores. They tolerate shade well which is very useful in my Northwest facing garden that doesn’t get much sun in winter.

 

Something about these plants feels very special and precious to me. In fact they are tough and hardy- hence the winter flowering- but the incredible subtlety and delicacy- and dare I say romance?- of their blooms, the length of time it takes a seedling to flower and the fact they provide such beauty at such a miserable time of year makes me treasure them. If I planted them out now, even though they are hardy, I feel it would be too much of a shock for the roots of these presumably container-grown plants to put them into cold February soil.

 

So, these Hellebores will be staying somewhere protected for a few weeks until the ground has warmed up a bit, before I find the perfect position for them. I am in love.

 

 

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