Hellebores: The Subtle Harbingers of Spring
Spring has just made a tentative entrance, and we all breathe a sigh of relief as the temperatures gradually start to rise. The days become longer and our state of near-hibernation is thrown back like a discarded blanket. First come the snowdrops, bravely flowering despite the chill winds and hail. Then, at last, the daffodils begin to bloom. Those yellow trumpets herald the true retreat of winter. Swathes of gold along the verges; so many bright stars atop grey-green leaves and stems. They punctuate the still bare and colourless garden and join other early spring favourites - pussy willow, Ribes Sanguineum (the flowering currant) and, not long after, tulips.
I’ve always preferred native plants and flowers. Non-showy specimens which would look equally at home in a woodland or meadow as in the cottage garden. One exception would be the dahlia; there’s something irresistible about those oil pastel-bright blooms in late summer, particularly when they’re growing amongst the herbs and vegetables.
But another personal favourite is the hellebore. A member of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family, it’s a herbaceous perennial which originated in parts of Europe and Asia. It’s fully hardy and easy to grow providing you have an area of rich, well-drained soil and dappled shade. Some hellebores are perfectly happy in containers so most gardens, big or small, should be able to accommodate a plant or two.
Hellebores can easily be overlooked when it comes to late winter and early spring flowers. They’re far more subtle, less attention-seeking than the fizzing sulphurs of daffodils, aconites and Forsythia. Some of the blooms are so dark you might not even spot them at first glance. The flower heads, in most cases, face downwards so you’ll need to lift them gently to take a closer look. But once you do, you’ll be smitten.
There’s quite the array of varieties: single or double-flowered, simple flower forms or deeply frilled. The pure white of the Helleborus niger (or ‘Lenten Rose’, as it’s often known) through pistachio and dusty pink to rich yellowy-creams, claret, deep damson and almost-black of H. hybridus x Harvington Black. There’s even an incredible deep blue-black with an iridescent sheen, H. Blue Metallic Lady.
If rich, moody colour is your thing then hellebores will work for you. But the paler types have beautiful markings: speckles, veining and deeply-tinted edges. The blooms can be displayed by floating the heads in water (their drooping nature means that stems in a vase won’t show the flowers to their best advantage).
If you enjoy exploring gardens - National Trust properties, stately homes or well-maintained parks - you’re likely to find hellebores at this time of year. Head for shady spots and look out for the clumps of glossy leaves and sturdy-looking flowers, almost like wax specimens which have been fashioned for botanical study. There’s something almost Victorian about them, particularly the gothic darker varieties. Once you’ve seen hellebores you’ll want to grow some of your own, either pale and pretty or deep and dusky.
Note: hellebores can be poisonous if eaten, and can irritate the skin so take care when handling them and ensure children and pets don’t ingest them.