The hellebores moment of flowering glory is also its bane, for who has not, at some point, referred to Helleborus niger or Helleborus orientalis as a Christmas or Lenten rose? However, while it would not be unusual to see these beautiful low-level-growing plants in flower at Christmas time or even during Lent, the hellebore is not, in fact, a rose.
Pictured: As can be seen from this still-life, the leaves of Helleborus Silver Dollar are heavily serrated. It has pink-blushed mauve buds which open to a creamy-green flower.
Natives of the Balkans, Majorca and Corsica, the genus of more than 20 species belongs to the ranunculaceae family. While the plants themselves are easy to grow and adaptable, extensive hybridisation has led to a variety of species, cultivars and hybrids and nomenclature is a minefield.
Pictured: The single White Picotee has a beautiful shape and needs to be planted against dark box or yew hedging so that it stands out when light levels are low.
Key to the development of the range of size, colours, flower and foliage shape was the work of Sir Frederick Stern, who, in 1947, crossed H. argutifolius with the Majorcan H. lividus to produce H. x sternii.
Stern's development was followed by that of nurseryman Eric Smith, and then Helen Ballard, known particularly for her rounded-flower hybrids bred using material she collected in the wild, and both have given their names to new hybrids.
Pictured: The anemone form of H. Ashwood Gardens Hybrids demonstrates clearly that hellebores are a member of the ranunculaceae family.
In recent years, Hugh Nunn has raised hybrids at Harvington in the Vale of Evesham, while hellebore breeding continues at Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands.
Pictured: Helleborus x hybridus Ashwood Gardens Hybrids Primrose Spotted, has been around about ten years, and is particularly attractive for its vanilla seed markings.
Most hellebores are easy to grow, require relatively little care and will thrive in a range of conditions. Hellebores are often sold as shade lovers, but the majority prefer high levels of sunlight in winter and spring.
Species such as H. niger and cultivars such as H. x ericsmithii, which have Mediterranean ancestry, like to be in a sunny position, in a humus-rich, free-draining soil. Most hellebores dislike being waterlogged and, once established, are drought-tolerant.
Pictured: Kevin Belcher, head of Ashwood Nurseries hybridisation progamme, prefers the hybrid Pink Picotee to its near relation, Pale Picotee. It has more veining, a better flower and a more distinctive shape.
Hellebores can be planted throughout the year, but tend to be sold, and indeed are best bought when in flower, from Christmas to March, so that you can see what you are getting.
Pictured: Helleborus x hybridus Pale Picotee is another fairly recent introduction with very delicate veining. It needs to be planted against a strong green background to show it off to its best effect.
Kevin Belcher, head of hybridisation at Ashwood Nurseries, prefers to move and divide hellebores in September and October, but they can in fact be moved at any time. After one poorer flowering season, the flowers will be as good as before the following spring.
Pictured: Helleborus Josef Lemper is a German-bred form of H. niger. It is slightly fragrant, has an upright habit and has a long flowering period, beginning as early as October.
Most hellebores have a big root system. When dividing a plant, dig it up with a fork, retaining as much as possible of the root system (which is often deeper than the height of the plant). Replant immediately. Incorporate plenty of organic matter when planting, and mulch round established plants with well-rotted manure annually.
Pictured: A cross between H. niger and H. x sternii, and therefore with Mediterranean ancestry, Helleborus x ericsmithii works well in full sun in containers with dwarf bulbs. It flowers as early as Christmas.
Feed in late winter with an organic fertiliser containing nitrogen and iron. If attacked by rust or a fungal disease, remove and burn infected leaves, and spray the remaining foliage with fungicide. Remove leaves when they become unsightly.
Pictured: Helleborus croaticus is a Will McLewin introduction, which is vigorous and undemanding with pendant flowers. It will do well in a sunny position or in slight shade.
The following nurseries and gardens stock hellebores. In addition, Broadview Gardens holds open days with hellebore tours on the last weekend of February/first weekend of March every year.
Pictured: The Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius, likes Mediterranean-type conditions and is grown here in well-drained soil at Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands.