Falling in love three or more times a day (and not getting into trouble) is a distinct possibility when you have Hellebores in your garden.

Flowers can be enjoyed indoors when they are in full colour, by cutting them a few centimetres below the bloom and floating them in a bowl of water. When the stem has hardened somewhat, the flowers can be cut with a longer stem. ‘Bash’ the end of the stems, plunge them into boiling water for a minute, and then place them in a full vase of cold water. In this way the blooms last a good two to three weeks.

Hellebores originated mainly in the Balkan countries, Central Europe, Russia and China. The crossing and hybridisation that has taken place in the past 30 years has resulted in some spectacular colouring and markings, the benefits of which we enjoy today in the Helleborus Orientalis varieties and Helleborus x Hybridus varieties.

The green-flowered varieties, such as the Corsican Hellebores (Hellebores Argutifolius) and Hellebores Foetidus, have different forms. Hellebores Argutifolius grows much taller and has long stems, serrated leaves and makes a good show in the garden. Hellebores Foetidus, full of tiny green flowers, has not proved its reliability in the Highveld.

Hellebores are easy-to-grow, reliable performers; they make few demands, improve with age and present bouquets of fascinating flowers in the coldest months of the year. What’s more, they remain evergreen with handsome palm-like leaves and grow in semi-shade or half day sun. They withstand the coldest frosts and yet do well in temperate regions.

The flowers come in white, cream, yellow, green, various pinks, red, purple, slate blue, purple-black and some have petals edged with a different colour (picotees). All have the option of spots or stripes or are bi-coloured and various double forms are becoming available. One of the fascinations of growing hellebores is that some colours start flowering from June in the Highveld, others in July and August through to the end of September.

In colder regions plants commence flowering later in spring. The flowers reach their fullest colours at the stage where they are ready to be pollinated; thereafter they turn shades of green or smoky mauve as the seeds develop. The flowers, proudly bearing the capsules of swollen seeds, remain on the plant for at least three months.

Hellebores require deep, loamy soil and do well with a little lime added. A hole at least 400mm deep, with a little manure at the bottom of the hole (but kept away from the roots) filled with compost with a cup of bone meal mixed into it, will set the plant off to an excellent start. Moderate watering is required, and a good layer of mulch and regular liquid feeding pay handsome dividends.

Hellebores in deep pots can grow to 800 mm high but in the garden they generally reach a height of 500 to 600mm in winter, and mature plants bear as many as 80 blooms. Plants can be divided by digging up the rhizome and separating the main section, but this sets the plant back a season or two. They can be propagated more successfully by seed, a process that will happen naturally if the plant is not disturbed. Seeds can also be picked and planted fresh and will germinate in nine months.

The plant has proved to be tough and rarely suffers from diseases. A few aphids may occur when the weather warms up or when the plant has not had sufficient water and slugs can cause a few holes in young leaves in wet weather but little damage is done to the plant. Any black leaves which occur occasionally can simply be cut off.

Worn and weathered leaves can be cut off at the end of autumn, and thinning out some central leaves will tidy up the plant and enable the new leaves and flower stems to emerge with ease. The end of autumn is also a good time to add a few spades of compost and fertiliser or manure to the plants.

Hellebores are sold by specialist growers and some nurseries and garden centres.

Article written by Thelma Carson of Archies Plants. Hellebores are available for sale from Thelma, contact her on 011 802 2209, 083 326 6497, e-mail: hellebores@mweb.co.za, www.archiesplants.co.za

The Gardener