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Plant of the Month February 2018

Helleborus oriental hybrids

Selection of oriental hybrid flowers

Not all hellebores are created equal, and we have preference for the much more herbaceous, acaulescent (meaning without stems) hellebores over the semi-woody caulescent (meaning with stems) types. There is a third group of hellebores, the H. vesicarius group, but as they aren’t hardy, we will just leave them there. While the semi woody hellebores can appear messy and sprawl about the border like a stroppy teenager, the acaulescent forms produce flower stems almost out of nowhere early in the year, with few smallish leaves and many large flowers. They seem to disappear into the crowd of a border or woodland once flowers have gone over, with leaves and stems mostly dying back.

Example of caulescent type Helleborus (H. multifidus subsp. bocconei)

 Example of acaulescent type oriental hybrid showing new growth

Of the acaulescent hellebores, the many oriental hybrids, originally from Northern Turkey, the western Caucasus and Georgia, are generally care-free and readily available in a wide range of colours. They are more commonly known as the ‘Lenten Rose’, as they start flowering in January, into and during the period of Lent. When purchasing oriental hybrids, it is worth noting that many unnamed seedlings can be as aestheticly pleasing as those with recognised cultivar names. We suggest that by starting with a small but varied choice of colours, it will not be long before a wider variation of colours and forms are likely to self-seed in your garden.

 Pink flowered oriental hybrids

Pale flowered oriental hybrids

As one of the more forgiving groups of hellebores, the oriental hybrids can grow in poorer soil conditions than many of the others, but do appreciate organic matter, decent drainage and some sun. They do not enjoy particularly strong sun but full shade will result in poor flowering. Older leaves can be cut off in late autumn or early winter as a general tidy and then further remove the now dead leaves just before flowering in January. Unwanted seedlings ought to be thinned out and/or potted up to be planted elsewhere or shared with those deserving. If there is sign of the fungal disease black spot, leaves should be removed and burnt rather than added to the compost to avoid contamination, anti-fungal sprays are also available if a problem persists. Vine weevils, slugs and snails can be a bother to the plants, especially potted up seedlings, so if causing significant damage, an application of nematodes is suggested alongside the obvious general practice of good health and hygiene. Aphids can be dealt with by using a soap based spray.

Oriental hybrids

We find the arrangement of oriental hybrids most charming when planted on a bank/slope and through wooded areas, however they are also useful in containers, bedding schemes or mixed borders providing early spring colour.

Oriental hybrids in woodland setting

Propagation is carried out by division or through seed sowing. Divide the plants after flowering in late spring, and make sure to divide the whole plant rather than just removing side growths, as these are usually the younger, more vigorous developments that will ensure strong plants in the future. If collecting seed, cut flowers off as soon as seed pods are visibly splitting and store them in paper bags or envelopes to allow pods to further open and naturally drop the seeds. These seeds will benefit from being sown in the summer, either into pots or straight in open ground. Avoid storing in the fridge as they will be encouraged into a dormancy, delaying germination. If sown into pots, use a seed compost with good drainage and about 1.5cm of fine grit to cover. Prick out into 9cm pots once true leaves appear.

Whole plant before dividing

Whole plant divided into four for replanting

If collecting seed, you might want to consider hand pollination in order to influence the colour and form of the new plants, breeders generally aim for an increase in flower size, upright habit, purer colours and overlapping rounded petals. The mother (seed) plant should be considered for vigorous growth and the father (pollen) should be considered for colour, with both for shape. It will take three years from germination to flowering new plants, but the reward in experimenting can make it worth the wait. It is best to pick the flower of the father plant before the pollen on the anthers has fluffed up to allow it to ripen inside the house without risk of it being stripped by pollinators. Pollen can be stored for at least a year, but importantly choose to pollinate the mother plant when buds on this plant are just about to open. This is so that the stigma is receptive to pollen but the anthers on this plant are yet to develop. Use a clean paintbrush or an object such as biro pen lid to dust the pollen onto the stigma, carefully peeling the petals back and then allowing them to return, this should ensure pollination is complete before the flower opens up to other potential pollinators.

Floral reproductive parts both male and female on same plant

Collecting pollen

Applying pollen to the stigma

When choosing flowers for the winter garden, the oriental hybrids are worthy of their place as they provide more large and colourful flowers than many other plants at this time of year. They bulk up quick and by having avoided the more woody group, do not take up awkward space once flowering is over. In dating terms, an oriental hybrid hellebore is consistent, low maintenance and pleasing on the eye, a real keeper. 
Key references:
Helen Ballard, The Hellebore Queen, G. Schmiemann and J. Westrich ed.
The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, G. Rice and E. Strangeman

Andrew Luke and Miranda Janatka Posted by Andrew Luke and Miranda Janatka

Andrew Luke is Head Gardener at Wrest Park (English Heritage). He can be contacted on Twitter @PlantGrafter
Miranda Janatka is a Botanical Horticulturist at Kew Gardens, she can be contacted at Twitter on @Miranda_J​

3 Comments To "Plant of the Month February 2018"

amanda On 12.04.2018
Great article.I love these plants, so much so i have been crossing them for 25 plus years and now have some amazing plants . just waiting to see the new crosses flower is great fun.I wish i had more like minded hellebore growers out there to swap plants and info with. Reply to this comment
Miranda On 17.02.2018
Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for your comment. Lucky you visiting plant fairs in Germany, hope you have a great time. Reply to this comment
Shelley Oberg On 10.02.2018
Thanks for this guys. I am being taken to a Helebore plant fair here in Germany on Thursday so this gives me a heads up! Reply to this comment
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