Dividing Hybrid Hellebores

Spring Planting Issue 2006, Horticulture Magazine

Back when I was writing for gardening magazines, I authored an article for Horticulture on dividing hybrid hellebores.  I suggested the topic because so many gardeners think hybrid hellebores are difficult to grow and wouldn’t think of dividing them.  Nothing could be further from the truth: they are easy to grow and propagate by division.

Horticulture photo shoot in my woodland

Hybrid hellebores are an ideal plant with their large flowers, which are ornamental in the mid-Atlantic from February (and sometimes earlier) to May, substantial wintergreen leaves, and resistance to deer.  For photographs of the full range of their colors, please read my article An Ode to Seed Strain Hellebores by clicking here.

Horticulture photo shoot at my potting bench

Reproduced below is my step-by-step guide to dividing a hybrid hellebore.  You probably can’t read the fine print so I will narrate the high points to go with the photos.

Hybrid hellebores are expensive relative to other perennials because it takes three to five years for them to bloom.  An economical way to increase your supply is to divide your own desirable plants.  The method outlined below can also be applied to all species hellebores except Majorcan hellebore (Helleborus lividus), Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius), and bearsfoot hellebore (H. foetidus).  However, the most beautiful hybrid hellebore specimens in my garden are my large clumps that have never been divided.  They are four feet across and have hundreds of flowers.  I only divide a hellebore if  it is so special that I can’t replicate it without division.

For your first experience with dividing a hellebore, select a plant with between five and ten flowers, older plants are too woody.  I always divide my hellebores as they are coming into bloom because each flower represents a potential division.  Insert your spade in a circle all the way around the plant and pry it out of the ground as shown in the photos for steps 1 and 2.  Shake it to remove excess soil and then wash away the remaining soil to reveal the extensive root system as shown in step 3.

Before you attempt any cuts, please make sure you have a heavy duty knife that is very sharp, preferably with serrations on some portion of the blade.  Hellebores have very extensive, woody root systems and dividing them with an inadequate tool can be dangerous.  Make your cuts where you see natural divisions in the root system as shown in the photo for step 4, including some roots, woody rhizome, and flower stems in each division.  For your first attempt, separate your plant into no more than three divisions.

Plant your new divisions in full shade to almost full sun.  Dig the hole as shown in the photo for step 5 and mix the existing soil with an equal amount of compost before replanting.  Firmly tamp down the soil, water well, and mulch with ground leaves.  Although you should water until frost for the first season, hybrid hellebores require no supplemental water once established even in droughts.  I never water or fertilize my hellebores, but I do apply ground leaves yearly.

These  are some of the hybrid hellebores that I think are so special that I would consider dividing them

This is the method I use to divide almost all plants, not just hellebores.  I often read in gardening books that you should cut off a portion of the plant while it’s still in the ground and wonder if the writer has ever tried that method.  Only by digging the whole plant up can you avoid injury to the plant by viewing the unique way each individual plant needs to be divided.

Since writing this, I discovered that none other than the famous Gertrude Jekyll and I agree on this point.  In 1898, in Wood and Garden, she wrote: “I never divide things by brutally chopping them across with the spade….The only safe way [to divide a Christmas rose] is to wash the clumps well out and look carefully for the points of attachment, and cut them either with knife or chisel….”

Please let me know in a comment/reply about your experiences with dividing hybrid hellebores.

Carolyn

This is part of a series of articles on hellebores, one of the specialties of my nursery.  Here are links to the other articles:

Part One        Hellebores for Fall

Part Two       An Ode to Seed Strain Hellebores

Part Three   Christmas Rose: The Perfect Hellebore

Part Four      Dividing Hybrid Hellebores

Part Five       The Sex Lives of Hellebores

Part Six          Double Hellebores

Part Seven   Cutting Back Hellebores

Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings: I am currently accepting orders for snowdrops, including  mail orders.  For the catalogue and order information, click here.  I am taking reservations for my March 18 & 19 Hellebore Seminars.  For the brochure and registration information, click here.  The March 6 session of Charles Cresson’s Snowdrops and Other Winter Interest Plants Seminar has been rescheduled for March 13 and has a few spaces left.  For the brochure and registration information, click here.

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81 Responses to “Dividing Hybrid Hellebores”

  1. Great how-to advice!! My favorite part though is the underlying prompting to resist the urge, and let them be. Can’t wait to have a few hellebores four feet across with hundreds of blooms.

  2. Carolyn, your Hellebore posts (all of them) are marvelous and so informative. That last collage is a stunner, too! I love Hellebores and have been adding new ones every year for the past several years…about 3, I think. I had no idea what they even were until I began blogging! Now I have quite a few, most are the orientalis variety and hybrids. I have just ordered more and have a mix of types…including argutifolius, foetidus ‘just because’ I wanted to;-) I love them…picking out a favorite is way to hard for me!

  3. Carolyn, great tips and advice. I can not say I have ever divided hellebores, so nothing to add. I will look into adding them to my garden, but I fear I do not have conditions to meet their needs.

  4. Excellent article and gorgeous hybrid hellebores, Carolyn … the huge undivided drifts must be a stunning sight to behold.

  5. I just realized that I didn’t answer your question in this post. I have divided a hellebore but only once so far. And I did it by digging directly into it, while in the ground, cutting it in half. I pushed the soil back up to the edges of the remaining half, and placed the other in a new hole. They’ve both done well until this year. I did this 2 yrs ago…and last year, I had a lot of buds on both. This year there aren’t many at all, although there are a lot of seedlings surrounding one of the plants. I’ll keep your method in mind should I decide to divide any more. Now that I’ve ordered more I doubt I’ll need to. I divided the one a couple of years ago because it was the only one I owned at the time!

  6. They are really beautiful. I didn’t know they come in that many colors and designs. Since I can’t grow them here, I shall just continue to admire that collage a little while more.

    • One, I appreciate that you continue to read and comment even though many of the plants I talk about don’t grow in Malaysia. I love reading about gardens in other parts of the world and what grows there like your lemon tree. Carolyn

  7. Very helpful advise! I do not have Hellebores in my garden but I guess the technique can be used for other plants too. :) Thanks for sharing.

  8. Carolyn, I divided my hellebores a while ago. I read web-sites which said that you should wait till after hellebores flower before dividing them. I didn’t because I wanted to give some to a friend. I had a gut instinct that they would be OK, because the root ball was like a solid clump, and they were. (My gut instincts aren’t always right by the way …)
    I’ll remember to reference your post next year.

  9. Carolyn, any idea how far south the hybrid varieties of these grow? I have 2 that are ok, not great, but flowering. Others here swear you can’t grow them. Looking at those pictures I sure would like to try as they are much more my style than typical early spring flowers.

    • Jess, My Longwood Gardens course book says zone 8. The American hellebore book written by Tyler and Burrell seems to discuss only cold hardiness. I would check with your local arboretum/botanical garden. Carolyn

    • I know of someone who grows them in GA so hopefully you have tried them and have had success. I grow mine up in zone 6 in full sun and they are very big. I don’t water them during summer either. So they are not just shade plants.

  10. Great info! I bought 3 hellebores last spring and I have blooms now! I love the early color they give the garden and I will definitely be adding more. The plants were not labeled and I have no idea what variety they are… If you have time, please visit my post on Wed-March 9 and identify my mystery hellebore!!

  11. Hi Carolyn, i don’t know hellebores because we dont have them here, just see them in photos. But what i appreciate more is your writing. How wonderful it is to be writing what you love to do, gardening! That is my fantasy still.

  12. I agree with you on the dividing method Carolyn. I just did that to my ground orchids recently, they are easier to divide when you take out the whole plant and see the natural allignments of the plant rppts as a guidance to cut and divide the plant. That way you avoid unnecessary injury to the plant. I love all your hellebores especially the double layered ones. Great post!

    • I am glad you agree because I envision all these gardeners hacking away at their plants based on what I consider erroneous advice in many gardening books. Orchids to you are what hellebores are to me so I know you can appreciate how much I love them. Carolyn

  13. Great post Carolyn, though I’m not sure I want to divide any of the hellebores I have at the moment. I love it when they form large clumps, and I think I get more of a buzz seeing what new ones appear amongst the seedlings. Though I will be getting a Christmas Rose, I have the perfect spot…

    • Janet, Good, don’t divide them and let them get huge. Do remove the seedlings from around the mother plant to a new location with more room. Also extract any seedlings from the crown because you will get new plants crowding your existing plant. Glad to hear about the Christmas rose. Carolyn

  14. gardeningasylum Says:

    I never think to divide hellebores as there are so many volunteers, but as you say, the expense of certain hybrid plants makes it worth the effort. I’m thinking that, as you suggest, the plants themselves do quite well undivided, which is true in my own garden.

  15. HI Carolyn, I didn’t know you wrote for a garden magazine. How neat! I have to smile with this post. I always though you should not divide hellebores but then last year I gave it a try and I’m so happy to say I have had success. I didn’t break it up to small chunks though, more like just cutting it in half. I had no idea you could do this and do like the method. Yesterday I was moving several Ivory Princes and thought to myself I should divide a few but when I dug them I just didn’t have the heart as I was not sure how it would do. Last week a friend let me dig tons of the stinking hellebore (love LOVE them) and I probably could’ve divided them but didn’t. I did get lots of babies. I have tried before to transplant these rather large specimens into my garden with no luck. I’m hoping they do well this time but in case they don’t the baby hellebores are doing great. I have a perfect garden for them but it is just a pain getting them started. Now if you could only tell me how to divide pumonarias I have some friends who would be most happy. I’ve tried with no luck on these. Fortunately I get a few seedlings each year. Have a good day and it’s great you are working to change the perception you can’t divide hellebores.

    • Tina, I just wrote articles for gardening magazines for about three years on the side. I didn’t really enjoy the process so I stopped submitting ideas. I find that a lot of the things that you read about what you can’t do with plants are not in fact true. You can divided ‘Ivory Prince’ if you want. It is not a hybrid hellebore, but rather a species cross featuring Christmas rose as a parent and making it dividable. I am doing an article on this soon.

      Stinking hellebore, H. foetidus, which I prefer to call bearsfoot hellebore, cannot be divided and must be propagated by moving seedlings. It is the only hellebore that likes somewhat moist conditions. It grows very well between rocks where the moisture drains down to it. I think it is best to transplant small plants unless they are grown in a pot.

      Pulmonarias are somewhat difficult to divide because they have very few roots which break off easily. You need to do it now while it is still cold out. Dig the whole plant and wash off the soil. Use a sharp knife to split the plant in two, making sure each half has attached roots. I do it all the time successfully. Carolyn

  16. Wonderful post! Love the information. I planted a few hellebores for the first time last year – we’ll see in a few years if they bloom!!! I’ve actually never seen a hellebore in person – I’m hoping mine will live. Your hellebores are amazing! I didn’t realize the plants were that large.

    • Holley, Now I think I should have been more restrained in my size estimate. The plants that are 4′ across are almost 20 years old and are in a location where the hellebores grow larger than anywhere else for no reason that I can explain. Hellebores take three to five years from seed. If you planted plants they should theoretically bloom this year or at the latest next year. Carolyn

  17. We had a hard winter this year and the hellebores seem to have loved it because they are blooming profusely.

  18. Great advice Carolyn. I haven’t attempted dividing hellebores as the ones I had never got big enough but it’s good to know for when I purchase any hellebores in the future.

  19. Carolyn, What a great post. You make the process seem so clear and straightforward. I am a fan of dividing perennials – it is such a good way of creating lots more new, vigorous plants. But in my garden in England I have the two hellebores that don’t divide easily, and so have increased them by collecting the delightful little seedlings that appear all around the parents – hellebores are one of the few plants in my view that simply cannot produce too many seedlings!
    By the way, what happens if you do try to divide foetidus or lividus? Is it simply that they don’t thrive?

    • Jill, There is really nothing to divide because they produce a woody stalk from a central point. It would be like trying to divide a tree. They are very good at producing seedlings, and the new plants look exactly like the parents unlike hybrid hellebores. Carolyn

  20. Someday, may my individual hybrid hellebores be as stunning as your! Thank you so much for the great advice…I just looked at my hellebore ‘ivory Prince’ and said, “You my beauty need to get out of that bed and into a better one for viewing!” So this morning after two days of heavy rains~with more to arrive~They’ve been moved and look pretty darn happy! No way were they ready for dividing, but, now I know how! gil

    • Gail, ‘Ivory Prince’ is such a beautiful hellebore with its rose blushed ivory blooms and silvery foliage with red highlights. It is completely unrelated to hybrid hellebores, but is a cross containing Christmas rose, Majorcan hellebore, and Corsican hellebore in various proportions. Carolyn

  21. Carolyn, I wish I had hybrid hellebores to try your very well explained recipe. Maybe next autumn I will be ready for the experience. Lula

  22. Had never considered dividing mine…will look at those that are old enough to do this and spread the wealth…

  23. It’s always interesting visiting your blog Carolyn. We don’t grow hellebores here in Austin but you never know what the future holds!

  24. Hi Carolyn,
    It will be awhile before I can divide the little plants I got from you, but I wanted to let you know that one of the Red Ladies is blooming for me. One of the dinky little three-leafed plants I got from you last spring is already in bloom!! Woohoo I’m hooked on hellebores!

  25. Dear Carolyn – A great article – are you dividing when the flowers have finished? Knew you were an expert but am impressed at how famous you are too. Clearly blogging rather than writing for magazines is better for you – you have your own deadline and a readership that is growing by the day. Seems you are the Gertrude Jekyll of Pennsylvania ;)

    • Laura, I divide hybrid hellebores ideally before the flowers are all the way out, but they can be fully extended. This might be the nicest comment I have gotten to date—the Gertrude Jekyll of PA!?! I am definitely as quirky and opinionated as she was. I am very happy with the progress of my blog, and I really love writing about plants. I didn’t like writing for magazines because they edit, add photos, and caption photos without any input from the author. Lots of mistakes are made, and the author has no control over them but his or her name is on the article. Quality is too important to me, and the money for writing magazine articles, even features, just isn’t very good. Certainly not enough to make up for the time my article on dwarf Jacob’s ladder was illustrated with a photo of Spanish bluebells. I was mortified. Carolyn

  26. Dear Carolyn, Another very informative posting in your hellebores series. Impressive article in Horticulture. P x

  27. Oh, my, you have me coveting some of those wonderful hybrids. And your mature hellebores are enormous! Thanks for a terrific post, filled with lovely photos and excellent advice.

  28. Hi Carolyn, What I am really enjoying with this blogging is the renewed interest in plants that for whatever reason I have stopped growing. I have in the past been too obsessed with Summer, I think I will now concentrate on some of the Spring beauties which you show us.

  29. Carolyn, I apologize for my tardy comment on this outstanding post. You certainly made that issue of Horticulture a more valued one. Great instructions and I whole heartedly agree one should not divide Hellebores while they are in the ground. You might have to do this with hosta or daylilies but even those should first be attempted by your suggested method. It is so exciting to see you holding those plants and knowing the great feeling of seeing your plants natural way of showing you where to divide.

    • Carol, Hey, it was my tiny moment in the spotlight so I have to milk it for all it’s worth. I always dig up hostas and daylilies too, If anything they are easier to divide than big hellebores. Today I was using a hatchet and rock hammer to divide some really large hellebore clumps. Beleive it or not I am trying to cut back on the number of hellebores in my garden. Carolyn

  30. Lisa Fuller Says:

    Carolyn, i was just gifted with a huge box of corsican hellebores which had been dug and divided. They all have huge 24″ flower stalks. Your comments suggest that corsicans are not likely to survive dividing. I’m on a 1/2 acre woodland lot in Portland Or and would dearly love for them to settle in. I’ve tucked them into humusy moist soil and removed about half of the flower stalks from each…what do you think are my chances?

    • Lisa, Maybe the plants that were divided to produce your gift were so big that they had separated into separate stalks and thus separate plants so they may take. Corsican hellebores grow on fairly sunny rocky hillsides in Corsica, although I have grown them in full shade. They do not like to be moist but prefer well-drained conditions. Carolyn

  31. Patricia Rugola Says:

    This is late because I have just found Carolyn’s site. There was a question about how far south hellebores can be grown. The hybrids in my zone 5 garden came to me as seedlings from my mother’s zone 9 garden in central California, where they thrive.

  32. Hi Carolyn, I’ve just discovered your blog and know it will be fun to return often. This is a wonderful article on hellebores. My oldest plant is now 4 years old and is bearing Many beautiful flowers this Spring. I suppose I should divide it? However, there are many, many little seedlings that I may care for, first. :-)

  33. Susanne Says:

    Hi Carolyn, I love your blog and all of the information you share with us. We are slowly transforming our garden into a woodland garden and the lawn area gets progressively smaller :) We have a pesky invader and I don’t know what it is: it has 3 leaves at the top of a stem like a Trillium and an elongated green flower. The roots are single and long with a nodule. The are easily pulled out but come back even more profusely. They are invading mostly sunny areas. What are they and what can be done to eliminate them chemical free?
    Thanks so much!

    • Susanne, I think I am having problems with the same pant in my woodland gardens and that it is some form of very invasive pinellia, possibly P. perdisecta. It comes up small with three leaflets but develops more if left to mature. I have gotten rid of it by very carefully digging up (not pulling) the plant with a trowel making sure to get all the little nodules. Carolyn

  34. Dorothy Halsey Says:

    I was wondering about care for hellebores in the fall. Do you cut them back, dead head them after they bloom?
    Also, when do you divide them? I thought I read your article carefully but maybe I missed this.
    I live in the Boston area.
    Thank you.

    • Dorothy, You don’t have to deadhead hellebores after they bloom and shouldn’t if you want seedlings. I deadhead mine because I don’t want seedlings. I cut them back when I see new growth in the spring. I divide them when they bloom in the spring. Carolyn

  35. What a great article, I will have to try this next spring.

  36. Dear Carolyn,
    I purchased a hellebore from you in 1999-2000 and I have moved three time since then, the hellebore is still thriving, I just love the plant. I just purchased a white hellebore. I think replanting is a breeze, I have found that when I replant or repot any plant that it is best to do it just before sundown, allowing time of course, do the same with house plants at night, and use your plant instincts, it’s never failed me. I just wanted to say to you, thank you, for introducing me to the wonderful world of hellebores.

    Sincerely,

    Amy Austin

  37. Martha Says:

    Last yr. I tried to divide an 8-9 yr. old helleborus but a tree-root is on top beneath the soil; latter tree has since been removed. Root seems to be exactly on top of half of plant.
    With some strong-arm help this fall I’d like to complete this project. Any solution/recommendations?

    • Martha, It is really not clear from your description what the problem is if the tree is gone. I would just dig around the plant, pull it out from under whatever is on top, and proceed with dividing. Since it seems like a lot of trouble I would reconsider dividing the hellebore. They don’t need to be divided. Carolyn

  38. Hi Carolyn,
    I have been growing hellebores for many, many years now. I started with a plant my mother in law gave me over 25 years ago, divided from one her mother in law gave her. It has moved spots in the garden several times, and spent 3 years in a pot whilst we we building a new home. I have just divided it again to give to my husbands sisters as a reminder to them of grandma and great gran. I now have over 50 different plants. Iam constantly discovering different colours, shapes and patterns in mine.
    I have divided up many of my originals as I have a large south facing garden that I want to be completely under planted with hellebores. ( I better mention I live in southern Australia – south is our shady side!)
    I love hellebores for many reasons. They are beautiful, give colour and flowers in the cold and wet, are so easy to grow, and you can do so much with them.
    Regards Liz

  39. Colin kness Says:

    Love the sign of spring from this plant, cut all dead leaves back hard every year,

    Have been dividing every year chop large clump off healthy large plant, then just divide leaving dirt on, never have had any die,

    It is very much like ornimental grasses, they are very hardy, to bad they don’t self seed,

    Thanks for nice pics and article,

  40. Maryellen Says:

    A neighbor who just bought his house … gave me a patch 6″x6″ of his plant. So I divided it into 14 sections some with leaves others with tiny buds beginning …. And planted in a shady area . Hope to c what will happen & will be surprised at the flower color ….planted each “node” approx 8″ apart and they covered a 3’x6′ area .keeping my fingers crossed for next year :))))

  41. This is a great post…I learned so much from it. thank you

  42. Dennie Terry Says:

    Carolyn,
    One more question, a neighbor is going to give me some of his heleborus plants, he has a lot, his garden is over 20 years old. His look like mine, like they are individual plants, not clumps. Is the best time to move them like the clump kind, when they start to bloom? Thanks again,
    Dennie

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