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The Lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus

23rd December 2020 IN Advice
The Lenten rose,  Helleborus x hybridus

In 2009, Beth wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper about her delight in seeing the Lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, for the first time. She built up and then lost her own collection for the nursery over the course of decades, but there are still many more that were planted in the garden.

Beth wrote:

"I first met them more than 50 years ago in the Suffolk garden of my friend and mentor, the artist-gardener Cedric Morris. Under a north-facing wall, a narrow border was crowded with generous clumps of handsome, evergreen foliage that carried multiple stems of modest, cup-shaped flowers, ranging from green-shadowed white to pink-flushed and purple. Intrigued, I bent to turn up their nodding heads, captivated by their hidden beauty, subtly shaded, veined or freckled. Since they flower from January until April, they were known as lenten lilies, now Helleborus x hybridus."

The Lenten rose,  Helleborus x hybridus
Helleborus x hybridus

In the mild weather we've been having of late, some hellebores are already in bud. In the Woodland Garden the native stinking hellebore, its green flowers edged with red, is almost flowering. So too the Corsican hellebore, with its pale green flowers and handsome serated foliage, is nearly in flower in the Gravel and Scree Gardens. But the real beauties, the Lenton roses, will, on the whole, flower for us in the Woodland Garden from January onwards.

In early December, well before they usually flower and before any January bulbs start poking through the leaf litter, we go through the garden removing last season's stems and foliage from the Lenten roses. This is done to stop the spread of any fungal spores from leaf spot disease, which shows as black or brown spots on the leaves and stems and the flower buds look rotten. It thrives where conditions are damp, which is also where many hellebores like to grow.

Even if the hellebore isn't showing symptoms, it is good practice to remove all the old stems and foliage. But don't put them in with your compost, send them away in your recycle bin, as the spores will remain in the compost and can be spread around unwittingly.

We only cut the foliage of those hellebores whose leaves grow on stems that emerge from the crown of the plant separately from the flower stems, such as Helleborus x hybridus. All of the old foliage is removed by cutting at the bottom of the stem, being careful not to damage any emerging new leaves and flowers.

The Lenten rose,  Helleborus x hybridus
Helleborus x hybridus

The stinking hellebore, H. foetidus, and the Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius, are among those we leave alone, as their foliage grows from a central stem on top of which the flowers grow. However, if the disease is showing on these types of hellebore, you could collect seed and remove the old plants completely. We found a whole patch of H.  foetidus infected near the holm oak beside the Scree Garden. But as it had dropped plenty of seed onto the ground that year, the old plants could be taken out, letting healthy new seedlings replace them.

Beth built up a large collection of wonderful Helleborus x hybridus. Sadly, propagation by constant division led to the build-up of a virus called hellebore black death, where the leaves and flowers become distorted and blackened. Now we propagate from seed, either collected from exceptional plants of our own, or from bought-in seed.

Many years ago, our then Propagation Manager, now Garden Director David Ward, headed off to Malvern in Herefordshire to visit Helen Ballard to collect some of her renowned hellebores. David writes:

"We actually ended up being invited to stay overnight, and spent a lovely evening and a rather scary night, trying to catch some sleep in a very chilly old house, with a storm raging outside. The next day we walked over Helen’s hellebore beds  Beth choosing those that took her eye, although I think the best ones had already gone. I remember feeling quite honoured at being given the task of digging up the chosen ones. Of course everyone drooled over Helen’s most treasured, the darkest hybrids, which grew close to the house. Nevertheless we came away with some gorgeous plants, which we then attempted to increase over the years by constant division. This eventually led to our stock having to be destroyed due to the dreaded hellebore black death.

Luckily Helen’s stock was widely distributed and seed strains of her stock now provide a more reliable way of propagating, and we're once again enjoying Helen Ballard’s charming Lenten roses."

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