The flowers of hellebores herald the start of the new year, with plants coming into bloom in early January. Not only do they produce attractive, flowers, but their deeply-lobed, thick leathery leaves create an attractive evergreen backdrop to spring bulbs and flowers.
The most popular hellebore is Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose. Thought to have been first introduced by the Romans, it is one of Britain's oldest cultivated plants.
It is native to southern and central Europe and is found primarily in mountainous areas, but also survives in a range of other habitats from light woodland shade to open alpine meadows.
Despite the conspicuous colour of the plant's blooms, the Latin name actually refers to its hidden black roots and derives from two Greek words, 'hellin', to kill and 'bora', food.
Recommended species and varieties;
H. niger itself has been crossed with other species to produce a few interesting hybrids.
* Helleborus niger, the original Christmas rose produces gently nodding flowers that open as early as January and carry on until late April.
* H. 'Louis Cobbett': One of the earliest varieties with pinkish blooms and very dark red stems.
* H.'Potter's Wheel': Perhaps the most famous hellebore variety of all, 'Potter's Wheel', in its true form, has immense white flowers up to 13cm (5in.) across, comprising five broad, overlapping petals.
Other hellebores to try
* Helleborus purpurascens: A purple-coloured hellebore with blooms that open as early as mid-December.
* H. x ericsmithii: A similar cross with H. x sternii, resulting in pinkish flower buds that open to a greeny white.
* H. x ballardiae The result of cross-breeding with the slightly tender H. lividus. The results are short stems of white blooms tinted brownish-pink in bud that are held above silver-veined leaves.
* H. x sternii: An easy-to-grow hellebore that produces clusters of showy green flowers tinged with pink and purple.
* H. x sternii Blackthorn Group: This plant has impressive purple stems, silvery-grey foliage, and pink-tinged green flowers.
* H. orientalis: A very popular variety is the Lenten rose, H. orientalis, with its captivating range of colours from pure white, apple green, pale pink and primrose yellow through to the most exquisite plum-purples and slatey blacks. All of these colours may be enhanced by varying degrees of dark red spotting and the flower outline can be rounded or slightly star-shaped.
* H. argutifolius, Corsican hellebore : Impressive evergreen foliage and subtle green flowers that appear in winter,and remain on the plant well into summer.
* H. foetidus, Stinking hellebore: Elegant and finely divided leaves with lime-green flowers appearing in spring.
Most hellebores grow happily in shade. They appreciate plenty of organic matter in the soil, topped up with a mulch every spring.
All types prefer a sheltered position away from the effects of strong icy winds in winter and spring that can damage the emerging blooms and leaves.
H. niger is not the easiest hellebore to establish in the garden but should take to a stony, fertile soil, preferably on the limey side, that doesn't get too dry in summer.
Buying hellebore seeds offers an even cheaper alternative to stock your garden with plants. Ideally, seeds should be sown fresh in late summer but, if sown in the spring, they will germinate the following October. Expect to wait about three years for them to produce flowers.
The dark green leathery leaves of all forms of H. niger , persist throughout the year, but are often laid flat by frost, which opens the centre of the plant to the elements. This allows the flowers to be easily viewed, but these too can suffer from excessive cold. The old practice of covering a plant with a glass cloche in winter entices a few earlier blooms to open. These will remain pristine under this temporary protection and can be cut for a long-lasting arrangement. In a vase it is easy to admire the finer qualities like the golden crown of stamens that adorn the flower centres and the speckled pink flower stems, almost the colour and texture of succulent young rhubarb sticks.
Hellebores, like roses, can suffer from a type of black spot that at best is unsightly and at worst can prove fatal. A systemic fungicide used once a month, drenching the whole plant, will help to prevent this disease. Any plants that are badly infected should have the worst affected leaves removed. Other than this, hellebores enjoy a fairly pest and disease-free life.