Hellebores mostly originate in inland regions of central and southern Europe. The main concentration of helleborus species in the wild is found in the mountainous Balkans. Hellebores are found as far west as Spain and Britain and as far east as Turkey and the Republic of Georgia. Helleborus argutifolius and H. lividus are found on the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Majorca respectively. But by far the most geographically isolated species is the rare Chinese species Helleborus thibetanus.
Helleborus niger (left) is a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, and is related to clematis, aquilegias and delphiniums. As with some other members of the Ranunculaceae family, hellebores are poisonous if consumed. Despite their common name, hellebores are not closely related to the genus Rosa. Helleborus niger has pure white blossoms which bloom at Christmas time in the northern hemisphere, hence the common name Christmas Rose. Niger, the species name and meaning black, refers to the dark-coloured roots.
The name Winter Rose or Lenten Rose refers to Helleborus x hybridus, previously known as Helleborus orientalis or orientalis hybrids. In the northern hemisphere, they flower in early spring, around the period of Lent, and are also known as Lenten hellebores or oriental hellebores.
The habitat in which hellebores are found in the wild is reasonably diverse. This ranges from semi-alpine to quite hot and dry low altitude areas. However, they are mostly plants of semi-shaded conditions, such as the edges of deciduous woodland, drier in summer and damp in the cooler months. In the home garden, they are
excellent for bringing early colour to shady herbaceous borders and areas between deciduous shrubs and under trees. They are particularly valued by gardeners for their winter and early spring flowering period; the plants are surprisingly frost-resistant and many are evergreen.
There are about 17 different species of helleborus. The most basic way to divide the genus for horticultural purposes is between the ‘caulescent’ (stemmed) and ‘acaulescent’ (unstemmed) species. H. argutifolius is an example of a caulescent species. It has a well-developed above ground stem which carries both true leaves and flowers. The acaulescent species (e.g. H. atrorubens) are shorter, clumping plants with separate leaves and flower stems. This split enables an understanding of the basic growth habit of the different species. H. niger is the exception, not sitting easily in either group.
Helleborus x hybridus are the most commonly found hellebores in the Australian garden. For years labelled incorrectly as ‘H. orientalis’ or ‘H. orientalis hybrids’. As it is now recognised that several different acaulescent species have been involved in the development of these garden origin hybrids over the past 200 years, and H. x hybridus is now recognised as the correct name.
Several of the different helleborus species will hybridise with each other. Helleborus argutifolius and H. lividus are closely related and will hybridise to give the fertile hybrid H. x sternii. H. niger will hybridise with both these two species and with H. thibetanus and H. vesicarius. All of the hellebore species in the Helleborastrum section will hybridise readily.
Basically, hellebores prefer a shady, moist situation in alkaline soil and often grow best under deciduous trees. They look best when planted en masse. At planting time, incorporate plenty of compost into the soil and keep well mulched. Water well, particularly during summer. Remove dead foliage and flowers, but otherwise do not prune. The growth cycle of hellebores is the opposite of many plants. Hellebores kick into growth in autumn, flower during winter and put on lots of new leafy growth in late winter to early spring.
Hellebores make good cut flowers if picked when mature, but immature flowers will wilt in a vase. They last for weeks slowly fading and changingcolour. They are excellent in float bowls.