Few perennials provide such a dazzling display of blooms during the off season as do Hellebores. Starting in December with Helleborus niger and stretching all the way into April with the Lenten Rose, this diverse group of species and hybrids comes in almost every colour under the sun and flower forms that include single, double and anemone.
With approximately twenty species and literally hundreds of hybrids, seed strains and cultivars out there, I thought I would present an easy to enjoy A to Z guide to what has been available these past twenty years; keeping in mind that space limitations only allow me to present a fraction of the species (H. atrorubens, purpurascens and viridis are omitted but still worth looking for) and even fewer of the cultivated forms. Nevertheless, I am sure that you will find something to pique your imagination among the many included in this piece.
Ballard Hybrids – Helleborus x ballardiae is a modern cross of Helleborus niger and lividus, and should not be confused with the work of its namesake Helen Ballard, whose hybrids were primarily concerned with Lenten rose. These evergreen perennials vary in hardiness from USDA zone 5 to 7 and often have prominent veining or marbling on the foliage. Some of the better cultivars to choose from include ‘Pink Frost’, ‘Cinnamon Snow’, ‘Merlin’ and ‘Platinum Rose’ – with blooms emerging white to pale pink and fading to rose-pink or copper.
Christmas Rose – One of the hardiest (USDA Zone 4) and most common hellebores, Helleborus niger bears pure white flowers starting in December-January that fade to coppery-green. These reliably evergreen plants dislike constant transplanting and never thrive in wet soils, so they are not always the best choice for new gardeners. While ‘Praecox’ used to be the earliest flowering cultivar, it has been largely replaced by ‘Jacob’ and ‘Josef Lemper’ which bloom for months. Double-flowered forms such as ‘Double Fashion’ and ‘Double Fantasy’ are also available.
Helleborus niger 'Double Fashion', Helleborus niger 'Jacob', Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper'
Corsican Hellebore – A much underutilized species, Helleborus argutifolius (also known as corsicus) is a bold specimen that reaches heights of up to 3’ tall when in bloom from February to April. The abundant apple-green flowers are borne above serrated foliage and these stems can simply be cut to the base after fading. Corsican hellebore is hardy to USDA zone 6 and quite sun tolerant here in coastal BC. An attractive variegated form, ‘Pacific Frost’ can also be found.
Double Lenten Rose – The Hellebore craze went into high gear when the original double-flowered Helleborus x hybridus first hit the market with such varieties as the pure white ‘Mrs. Betty Ranicar’. Then Terra Nova Nurseries cloned the Winter Jewels strains from Marietta O’Byrne and suddenly such beauties as ‘Amber Gem’, ‘Peppermint Ice’ and ‘Onyx Odyssey’ were readily available at garden centres. This group of hellebores provides a vast colour range, many with contrasting spots such as found on ‘Swirlin’ Skirts’ and the ‘Mardi Gras’ double mix.
Helleborus x hybridus 'Mardi Gras Double Mix', Helleborus x hybridus 'Onyx Odyssey', Helleborus x hybridus 'Peppermint Ice', Helleborus x hybridus 'Swirlin' Skirts'
Eric Smith Hybrids – These are hybrids bred from Helleborus x sternii and H. niger which have been named after the plantsmen who made the original cross. The result was a large-flowered hellebore with marbled evergreen foliage and a broader colour range. Blooming January through to March, these USDA zone 6 hardy plants work well in containers and seem to prefer a half day of sun. Look for Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Winter Sunshine’, ‘Pirouette’, ‘Candy Love’, ‘Winter Moonbeam’ or even Helleborus x nigersmithii ‘Ivory Prince’.
Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Winter Sunshine’, Helleborus x nigersmithii 'Ivory Prince'
Helleborus x sternii – This is an important hybrid of the tender Helleborus lividus and H. argutifolius which resulted in a hardy (zone 6) offspring that is often variable in height and form. It was one of the parents of the aforementioned Eric Smith hybrids and continues to be an important component of modern hellebore breeding. The original cross brings us bluish-green foliage held on burgundy stems that nicely contrast the blooms, which are flushed red on the reverse with a green face. Seed strains such as ‘Pewter Form’ and ‘Boughton Beauty’ are available, as are cultivars such as ‘Silver Dollar’ – all require a minimum of half day sun.
Lady Series – An important group of seed strains in the early days of collecting hellebores, when we were looking for an array of flower colour and form. These single and double-flowered Helleborus x hybridus were sold by Jelitto Seeds, making plants much more affordable for the average gardener. They offered ten strains which included ‘Blue Lady’, ‘Pink Lady’, ‘Yellow Lady’, ‘Red Lady’, ‘White Lady’, ‘Blue Metallic Lady’, ‘Picotee Lady’, ‘Pink Spotted Lady’, ‘White Spotted Lady’ and ‘Double Ladies Mixed’. The colour intensity and spotting were variable due to it being a strain, but these were reliable plants overall.
Helleborus x hybridus 'Metallic Blue Lady', Helleborus x hybridus 'Pink Lady', Helleborus x hybridus 'White Lady Spotted', Helleborus x hybridus 'Yellow Lady'
Majorcan Hellebore – This rather tender hellebore species (H. lividus is USDA zone 7 at best) is a native of the island of Majorca, off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean. That said, the small greenish-white to pink blooms of ‘White Marble’ and ‘Pink Marble’ (respectively) look absolutely stunning sitting above the beautifully veined foliage, making it worthy of a sheltered space in your garden.
Nigercor Hybrids – These Helleborus niger x argutifolius (syn. corsicus) hybrids bear large greenish-white flowers well above the evergreen foliage. They have green to bluish-green leaves and appear to be quite vigorous, settling in very quickly. Blooms will last for nearly two months, they are sun tolerant and hardy to USDA zone 5. There are also quite a few cultivars to choose from including ‘Honeyhill Joy’, ‘White Beauty’, ‘Winter’s Ghost’ and ‘Snow Love’.
Helleborus x nigercors 'Honeyhill Joy', Helleborus x nigercors 'Winter's Ghost'
Rodney Davey Marbled Group - Now we come to my favourite class of hellebores and for good reason, because they have just about everything going for them; large outward facing flowers in strong colours, prominent yellow stamens and beautifully marbled foliage that rivals the blooms for aesthetics. Breeder Rodney Davey took all of 12 years to create a red-flowered hellebore with striking foliage and when ‘Anna’s Red’ finally came out, it can honestly be said that it was worth every minute he took. These vigorous evergreen hellebores are the life’s work of a diligent plant breeder and with ‘Penny’s Pink’, ‘Molly’s White’, ‘Dana’s Dulcet’, ‘Pippa’s Purple’ and ‘Cheryl’s Shine’ we get to reap the benefits of those January to April blooms.
Helleborus x 'Anna's Red', Helleborus x 'Penny's Pink', Helleborus x 'Pippa's Purple'
Sahinii Hybrids – A recent incarnation of Christmas Rose and Helleborus foetidus named after its discoverer, Kees Sahin. Helleborus x sahinii ‘Winter Bells’ features pendulous creamy-white flowers tinged bronze-pink on the outside and green within that emerge mid-January. This unusual hybrid is hardy to USDA zone 5 and grows approximately 15” tall by 2’ wide at maturity.
Single Lenten Rose – Lenten Rose or Helleborus x hybridus is a complex hybrid of several species, including Helleborus orientalis, H. odorus, H. torquatus, H. cyclophyllus and H. purpurascens. This is why this hybrid group holds the greatest colour diversity within the genus, as well as those with a beautiful picotee edge, intricate spotting, anemone form or even contrasting dark nectaries. ‘Tutu’ brings us a fabulous anemone form, ‘Cherry Blossom’ dark purple nectaries, ‘Golden Sunrise’ intricate spotting and ‘Jade Star’ a green that rivals any colour.
Helleborus x hybridus 'Cherry Blossom', Helleborus x hybridus 'Golden Sunrise',
Helleborus x hybridus 'Jade Star', Helleborus x hybridus 'Tutu'
Stinking Helleborus – Helleborus foetidus does have a slight bitter smell at close range but the apple green flowers and ease of care more than make up for it. My favourite is ‘Wester Flisk’, a finely cut silver-leaved strain with pendulous green blooms perfectly ringed in red on the edge.
Well I hope you have enjoyed my A to Z in Hellebores and if you would like to see a few of these in person, then I suggest you drop by the nursery in early February; when we should have about forty cultivars in stock for you to peruse and possibly bring home.