The secrets of growing Helleborus
PUBLISHED: 10:38 25 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:05 20 February 2013
Mike Byford tells us the secrets to growing Helleborus
The genus Helleborus is an old one and to best understand the ideal growing conditions one needs to look at the native wild species habitats.
Contrary to much popular literature, hellebores are not woodland, moisture loving or shade loving. They will grow in shady moist conditions but this is not their best situation. In the wild hellebores grow in open meadows in full winter sunshine and on high mountain sides and cope with summer dryness and winds by going dormant in many cases. They can be found on the margins of woodland, often forced there as their preferred habitats are ploughed up due to the demands of agriculture.
To get the best out of hybrid hellebores, the ideal conditions are full winter and spring sunshine in a deep well drained soil where moisture is available deep down but the surface is not waterlogged and has good ventilation. If they become shaded in summer after their flowering season this is fine, so they can be planted beneath deciduous trees in a woodland setting where they will provide some winter cheer. Choose an open glade inside the wood and you will be rewarded with better flowers.
Ideal soils are loamy with plenty of well composted leaf mould to provide structure and moisture retention. Hellebores will grow in heavy clay soils but some soil improvement is advised to open the structure and improve surface drainage. Plant hellebores on slopes or in raised gardens to improve drainage and enable better viewing of their nodding flowers. Natural companions for hellebores are crocus, hepaticas, anemone nemorosa, erythroniums and snowdrops. This provides a succession of flowering to extend the late winter joy of the first hellebore flower.
To improve flower colour and intensity, it is advisable to feed during early spring with a balanced fertiliser. Helleborus niger may appreciate a little lime or calcium supplement to green the leaves.
If you like naturalistic planting consider some of the species hellebores for your garden, they usually have smaller more subtle flowers but a charm of their own. Helleborus torquatus, H. atrorubens and H. thibetanus are great garden plants.
Hellebores are long lived and easy to grow in most environments, just prepare the soil and ensure they will not be waterlogged and then let them do their own thing. In Derbyshire, planting on south-facing hedgerows with their sloping sides facing the sun is a great way to grow them.