Dividing Hybrid Hellebores
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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.