The winter wonder of hellebores | Gardening advice

To me it’s one of the perpetual mysteries of gardening: why some plants, despite appearing to really have it all, somehow still languish away from the horticultural spotlight. Very near to the top of that list must be hellebores, with their exotic blooms opening up as if by magic in the dead of winter. Their flowers often last for months at a time on evergreen, drought-tolerant, fuss-free plants. I often wonder if it’s their incredible generosity combined with ease of cultivation that causes us to take them for granted.

Seeming to defy the seasons, Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk Group’ is bursting into bloom right now, its finely divided foliage and pistachio-flowers on salmon-pink stems making it appear like it belongs on some far-flung forest floor in the tropics. If you crave the look of a schefflera or one of the palmate begonias, but can’t handle their upkeep (or price tag), this makes a perfect doppleganger. Like all hellebores, it even thrives in dry shade where little else will grow.

Hellebores displayed as cut flowers.
Winter bouquet: hellebores displayed as cut flowers. Photograph: Simic Vojislav/Getty Images

If truly fabulous winter greenery is your thing, Helleborus x sternii ‘Blackthorn Strain’ has prickly edged leaves covered in the most wonderfully reptilian green mottling, a botanical animal that gives you full-on Jurassic Park vibes. Finally, on the foliage front, the soft, bright green mounds of Helleborus multifidus erupt out of the ground like a bubbling emerald spring.

Now, let’s talk flowers. “Unique” can be an overused word in horticulture, but the haunting mix of steel-blue, violet and grey hues in the velvety petals of Helleborus ‘Blue Diamond’ is really impossible to find anywhere else in the botanical world. Unlike in other plants where all the extra petals of double flowers can remove part of their wild charm, in hellebores they give them the wondrous ability to impersonate other species. To my eyes, Helleborus ‘Onyx Odyssey’ looks like a giant cherry blossom but, as its name suggests, with the deepest black and a silvery-grey powder coating over its petals. ‘Wedding Party Bridesmaid’ is altogether more soft and delicate with a whiff of the forest cacti bloom about it. White petals are tipped with blackcurrant edging on one end, fading to palest jade green towards the centre. Just straight-up gorgeous.

There is even a whole series of doubles with an elegant water lily-esque look. ‘Hebe’ has burgundy breaks that bleed through the ice-white petals and, if you want even more colour, ‘Artemis’ features a very similar wine-coloured mottling, but over acid yellow. Given that some of this detail needs to be appreciated close up and their nodding heads can hide some of their true wonder in the garden, their splendour is sometimes best appreciated as a cut flower, with individual blooms placed floating in a bowl of water. A beautiful, unconventional form of floristry indoors, or alternatively the easiest eye-catching display floating in container ponds or water urns outdoors.

It really is hard to think of any single plant that can offer quite so much, at a time of year that often offers so little.

Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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