by Marge Talt (mtalt(at)clark.net
The Lenten Roses Plus
Of all the hellebores found in gardens, probably the largest number belong to the Helleborus x hybridus group. Many have bought this group as H. orientalis or hybrids of same. I know that my one representative of this group was purchased a H. orientalis a number of years ago. The true species is seldom found in gardens. There are three subspecies:
H. orientalis subsp. orientalis usually has white flowers with some green or cream tints and green nectaries.
H. orientalis subsp. abchasicus has flowers tinted with red and purple or green nectaries with purple marks.
H. orientalis subsp. guttatus has flowers similar to orientalis except that they're spotted with red or purple.
All of them are evergreen and make clumps about eighteen inches (45 cm) tall. The flowers are slightly nodding, two to three inches (5-7.5 cm) in diameter. As they mature, they open horizontally. All three subspecies are native to Europe and grow in similar habitats which range from grassy situations at high altitudes to scrub, thickets and woods at lower altitudes. They are said to prefer limy soil, but seem to do quite well in soils that are neutral to slightly acid as long as they are deep, relatively rich and well-drained. They will not tolerate soggy soil.
Like hellebores themselves, their names are variable. For most gardeners, this doesn't really matter, but it tends to give hellebore nuts and taxonomists fits as they try to sort out exactly who is who and what they've got.
H. atrorubens is a perfect example of the confusion that exists. I purchased a tiny plant by this name in the fall of 1996. It's blooming for me this year for the first time. I'm thrilled with the few flowers it is providing, but I now realize that it is very likely not the true H. atrorubens.
Why do I think I've got an impostor? Well, in the first place, my plant is evergreen and the true species is not. In the second place, my plant is producing flowers while in full leaf; the species sends up bare one foot (30.48 cm) flower stalks and then leafs out. In the third place, while the leaves are divided into relatively narrow and varying leaflets, they don't form a bold circle and there aren't between nine and fifteen divisions to each leaflet, as there should be on the true species. In the fourth place, the flowers on my plants definitely hang, rather than facing outward.
About the only key points that concur with the description of the species is that my plant started producing reddish purple flowers in early February and the new leaves seem to have a purple cast to them. The species may also be green or occasionally deep purple.
My plant closely resembles the one in the photo link above, so I have my doubts about that one, too.
What do I have? That's hard to say, but, based on the information in Rice and Strangman's Hellebores, I'll put my money on one of the H. orientalis subsp. abchasicus, often called "Atrorubens of Gardens". But, I'm certain - or pretty certain - it's not the one called 'Early Purple', because I can't detect any sign of green staining inside the flower. Whoever it is, I'm enjoying it.
H. x hybridus
This rather boring name covers hybrids of just about all the species listed in the acaulescent group in Part 1 of this series. They are quite promiscuous if grown within bee distance in the garden. But, few are totally ugly and most are quite lovely, while some are rather heart-stopping. All of them provide flowers in those dreary days before spring finally arrives.
Many named varieties have been bred, mostly in the UK and Europe, although work is being done this side of the pond, too. Hopefully, some of these beauties will become more available to us in the not too distant future. Breeding is a slow process; I'll tell you more about this next time.
This is my clump, taken very late in the season as the flowers were fading to green; something all hellebore flowers do. They start out the deep pink. There are now half a dozen young plants in the vicinity; three who flowered this year for the first time. It has seeded true because I have no other x hybridus varieties in the garden...yet.
My friend Rolf sent me this photo of an un-named x hybridus that I think is quite lovely. I've been told that some people only want rounded sepals, but I find the pointed ones on this plant graceful and charming. Plus, I'm quite taken with the almost lavender flower color.