The Hellebore Season has started

24. November 2019 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
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KGA entrance © Isabelle van Groeningen

KGA entrance

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Much of this week the weather has been very seasonal: cold, grey and damp. I have always disliked this weather, as in Belgium where I grew up, it would oft hang around for days on end. Whilst I had the feeling of living under a heavy oppressive lid, I could see plants struggle in this damp cold climate. Particularly Mediterranean plants like lavender would on occasion not survive the winter because of the high humidity.

The first ornamental Cherry Tree is flowering!

KGA arched entrance © Isabelle van Groeningen

KGA arched entrance

The positive side of this week was walking out of the house one morning, looking up and noticing the first flowers on the Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. Its small, semi-filled white flowers resembling snowflakes fluttering down. There is also a pale pink form P. subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ which is very pretty. These flowers will accompany me for the dreary months to come. When a hard frost comes, they will freeze, only to carry on with fresh flowers once the temperatures warm up again.


Helleborus niger Bud © Isabelle van Groeningen

Helleborus niger Bud

On the ground, the first fat buds on the hellebores are full of promise. Impatient for the season to start, we indulged ourselves for the opening of our Advents market last week. We bought a larger quantity of Helleborus niger. Varieties such as ‘Diva’ and ‘Jasper’ start flowering as early as November, which has made it such a popular plant for the Christmas season.

Long-lasting winter flowers

Helleborus niger Flower © Isabelle van Groeningen

Helleborus niger Flower

All Hellebores are valuable garden plants as they are green in winter and not only appear to flower at a time of year when little else does, they seem to do so for a very long time.

Contrary to most flowers, Hellebores do not have proper petals. Instead, the sepals, which in many flowers are green leaf-like structures that enclose the flowerbud to protect it, develop into petal-like white leaves. These are much tougher than petals would be, and will last for much longer. They are already visible and showy when the actual flower is still in bud, and will remain attractive until seed has started to set and ripen. With time they turn green. The extra presence of chlorophyll helps the plant to photosynthesize at a time of year when light levels are still low, and last year’s crop of leaves have faded, whilst the new ones have not yet fully developed.

Heleborus niger fading © Isabelle van Groeningen

Heleborus niger fading

What would be the petals, have transformed themselves into nectaries. An outer row of tubular structures that contain a lot of nectar, making these winter flowering beauties particularly attractive to foraging early wild bees.

How to grow Hellebores

Hellebrous 'Winter Sunshine' © Isabelle van Groeningen

Hellebrous ‘Winter Sunshine’

These early garden heroes can be slightly tricky garden guests – they are more difficult to please than the later flowering Helleborus orientalis hybrids. By following these steps, you should find them quite content:

  1. Plant them in a slightly shady place: their natural habitat is woodland. Good companions are snowdrops, evergreen ferns and grasses. Heucheras can also work well with them.
  2.  if your soil is neutral to acidic, add some lime such as dolomite lime, which also contains magnesium.
  3.  Add compost or well-rotted cow-manure into the planting hole
  4. Make sure the plants are not water-logged. They hate having their feet in water.
  5. Remove unsightly od damaged leaves in order to avoid possible fungal diseases.
  6. Plant them now, or at the latest towards the end of their flowering season. During the summer months, the plants have a period of rest, and will establish more slowly.

If you go out and treat yourself to some Hellebores, do look out for plants with many buds. They are tucked under the leaves, often still tightly rolled up, sticking their noses only just out of the ground. These will give you a never-ending display for the months to come!

PS: On Sunday 15th December there is a short film about Hellebores at the Garden Academy in RBB’s Gartenzeit at 6:30pm!

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