The Sex Lives of Hellebores

The green halo in this beautiful hybrid hellebore flower probably results from the influence of H. torquatus, which is characterized by a pale collar around the center of the flower.

Hybrid hellebores, Helleborus x hybridus (the Royal Horticultural Society approved name, previously called Lenten rose or Orientalis hybrids), are the most commonly available hellebores with the large, showy, nodding flowers in an amazing range of colors (click here and here to see photos).  In my article An Ode to Seed Strain Hellebores, I explained my fascination with and love of the diversity found in hybrid hellebores .

I described how, unless tissue cultured, you can’t be sure what a hybrid hellebore  flower will look like unless it is in bloom.  But I pointed out that to me that is the magic of hybrid hellebores: each plant is a unique individual, with the potential for inheriting genetic material from any of the 9 species hellebores that could be its parents.  In this article, I want to explain exactly where hybrid hellebores come from and introduce you to their parents.  If you want to skip the technical discussion, photos of the parent species are at the end of the article.  I won’t be insulted.

The leaves of ‘Metallic Blue Lady’ hybrid hellebore come out a deep glossy purple showing the influence of H. atrorubens, which can have the same attribute.

The genus Helleborus contains between 12 and 21 species, depending on who is counting, but I usually stick with the 15 described by Brian Mathew, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in his authoritative work Hellebores (Alpine Garden Society 1989).  Six of these species are not relevant to our discussion here.  The other nine species are the parents of hybrid hellebores.  They are H. atrorubens, H. cyclophyllus, H. dumetorum, H. mulitifidus, H. odorus, H. orientalis, H. purpurascens, H. torquatus, and H. viridis.

These nine hellebore species have crossed and re-crossed naturally and through human intervention by hellebore breeders  over hundreds of years to produce hybrid hellebores.  That is why hybrid hellebores are so variable: they can have the characteristics of any of these nine species in their background in infinite combinations.  And it is impossible to be sure which species a particular hybrid hellebore has in its genetic makeup, although flower and leaf characteristics can often lead one to speculate that a particular parent might be predominant (see two photos above).

The species themselves are also incredibly variable in the wild, often freely crossing  with each other,  making them difficult to identify.  For a discussion of just how variable, read Chapter 3 in Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by J. Tyler and C. Burrell (Timber Press 2006).

This very beautiful but clearly hybrid hellebore was sold to me as H. purpurascens.

I was a hellebore fanatic long before I became a galanthophile (see my article Snowdrops: Further Confessions of a Galanthophile), and over the years I have collected, grown, and, in some cases, sold to my customers all 15 species, which are all very beautiful in their own right.  In addition, I have attempted to acquire them from as many different sources as possible in order to get plants that I consider the most true to type.   Many of my plants were grown from seeds collected in the wild by Will McLewin of Phedar Nursery in the U.K. You would be amazed at what I have been sold as species hellebores (see photos above and below).

These four plants were all sold to me as H. atrorubens.

So over the years, through trial and error, I have developed what I jokingly call the “U.S. National Species Hellebore Collection”, and I present them to you.  But please remember that I have never actually seen these plants in the wild.

Helleborus cyclophyllus

Helleborus cyclophyllus is native to the open dry hillsides and woods of Greece,  Albania, the former Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.  Its name means with leaves in a circle.  It is quite fragrant and not ornamentally distinct from H. odorus,  fragrant hellebore.  All the chartreuse-flowered species hellebores look gorgeous in combination with red- and purple-flowered hybrids.

Helleborus atrorubens

Helleborus atrorubens is native to dry hillsides and woodland margins of the former Yugoslavia.  Its name means dark red, and it gives purple and red colors to hybrid hellebores.  It can also contribute the desirable attribute of leaves that emerge  dark purple.

Helleborus dumetorum

Helleborus dumetorum is native to the mountainous woods and thickets of Austria, Romania, the former Yugoslavia, and Hungary.  Its name means of thickets and hedgerows.  At 8 to 12″ (all the others are 12 to 20″), it is the smallest hellebore species and looks like a miniature.  Its multiple skinny leaflets give it a feathery appearance.

Helleborus purpurascens

Helleborus purpurascens is native to light woodlands and meadows throughout eastern Europe.  Its name means purplish, and it usually doesn’t exceed 12″ tall.  It is my favorite of the species both for its gorgeous and unusual flowers and its circular, filigreed leaves.  It must be more stable in the wild because every plant I have acquired looks similar to the photos above.

Helleborus odorus (Fragrant Hellebore)

Helleborus odorus is native to woodland margins and thickets of Hungary, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia.  Its name means fragrant, and it is one of the more commonly grown species.  On warm days, H. odorus and H. cyclophyllus perfume my whole species hellebore area.  I have never noticed that this trait was passed on to any hybrid flower.  As noted above, it is not ornamentally distinct from H. cyclophyllus.

Helleborus torquatus

Helleborus torquatus is native to light deciduous woods and clay soil of the  former Yugoslavia.  Its name means with a collar, referring to the pale ring around the neck of the flower, which you can see in the photo above.   Its leaves have 15 to 25 long tapering segments giving the whole plant a unique spidery look.   It produces double flowers in the wild and also contributes purple and blue color and metallic highlights to the hybrids.  It is the rarest of the species in this article, and I have only been able to acquire it from one source.

Helleborus viridis (Green Hellebore)

Helleborus viridis is unusual culturally and geographically because it is native to the moist deciduous woods and meadows and clay soil of western Europe and the U.K.  Most of these species hellebores require well-drained soil and are native to eastern Europe.  Its name means green, and its flowers are certainly the best green of the species.  I find them quite beautiful.

Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose)

There are three subspecies of Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten rose.  The photos above are of  a plant sold to me as H. orientalis subsp. abchasicus.  However, because of the green carpels and spotted flowers, I am inclined to think it is subsp. guttatus. The seed came from well known hellebore expert Will McLewin.  It is native to open fields as well as scrub and woodlands of the Caucasus Mountains where Europe meets Asia, which explains its name meaning of the Orient. Most hybrid hellebores are derived at least in part from H. orientalis, which is why they were originally called Orientalis hybrids.

Helleborus multifidus

Helleborus multifidus is native to the deciduous woods and open scrubland of Italy, the former Yugoslavia, and Albania.  Its name means much divided, referring to its beautiful frilly leaves.  I grow three of its four subspecies, which I treasure for their foliage, and two are pictured below.

Helleborus multifidus subsp. bocconei is a variant from central and southern Italy and Sicily named for a Sicilian botanist.  It is said to be a better garden plant than the other subspecies and certainly makes a gorgeous lacy statement in my gardens.

Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus is native to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It is definitely harder to grow but well worth the effort for its extraordinary leaves, which can be divided into 100 leaflets.

I hope you have enjoyed my photo gallery with short descriptions for each of the nine hybrid hellebore parents.  I have spared you many details that interest me as a collector.  I felt that this was enough to take in in one article.  I should probably also mention that none of the photos above picture the true leaves of the plants, which come out after the flowers.  What you are seeing above are the bracts, which are part of the flower stem and often reflect the leaf characteristics.  If readers are truly interested, I could photograph the leaves, which in many cases are extraordinary, for a later article.

I would really appreciate reader feedback on your experiences with these species, and I would especially like to know if you think any of them are mislabeled and why.

Caroly

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.), click here.

Nursery Happenings: I sell several of the species hellebores pictured above so if you are interested send me an email (no mail order).  My next nursery event is Bulb and Native Wildflower Day on April 9 from 10 am to 2 pm.

Thanks from Tara:

In my post I Need Your Help, I asked you to send cards to Tara, the five-year-old daughter of Kartik whom I profiled inNew Year’s Resolution to Edit the Garden. Tara had recently been diagnosed with leukemia.  As a result of your generosity, Tara received cards from all over the world and has sent you one in return.


62 Responses to “The Sex Lives of Hellebores”

  1. Carolyn, I read your Hellebores post to the end. Very informative and you may have identified one I have. It too was sold as Helleborus orientalis abchasicus, but it is spotted and has green carpels. I never realized how complex this flower is in its identification. Tara’s drawings are very nice. I am glad she is back in school and feeling better.

    • Donna, It really is hard to keep all the species straight and that’s just the small sample that has come into cultivation and has been sold. It is really a lot more complex than it sounds in my post. About Tara, I have learned that good progress for a child with leukemia is what the rest of us would consider an ongoing nightmare, but she is doing as well as can be hoped. I feel sure all the good wishes from garden bloggers around the world have helped. Carolyn

  2. Great title and post! Thank you for all the wonderful information. I love them all. It would be hard to pick a favorite. They are just such a great plant.

  3. I love your hellebores…I have one blooming and hope to see more soon…I am very bad at keeping names so I will be of no use for you…fascinating how many come from eastern Europe as a native…and glad to see Tara is feeling better

  4. Clara Berger Says:

    Great article, Carolyn. I love purpurascens and when I get my hands on dumetorum, I would like to combine them in their own area. Would you care to mention some sources for those of us who can’t do mail order?

    Have you heard or raised Tasmanian Devil?

    Good luck to Tara!!!

    • Clara, The only Tasmanian connection I know of is the double white hybrid ‘Mrs. Betty Ranicar’, which was selected there. Please let us all know about Tasmnanian devil.

      I have many of these species hellebores for sale, but the best mail order source is Arrowhead Alpines, click on the name for a link. They offer H. cyclophyllus, multifidus, odorus, orientalis subsp. abchasicus, purpurascens, and viridis. They also list a form of H. dumetorum that is not the one in my article. It looks more like a hybrid. I believe all their seed comes from Will McLewin. Their plants are very well grown and true to form, and it is a pleasure dealing with them. Carolyn

  5. Great post and great pictures of hellebores. I don’t know how you get such great shots without being on your hands and knees. I really wish those flowers would point their little heads upwards for me. Love them anyway and I do get down on my hands and knees to enjoy them from time to time.

    • Ferne, The key to getting good photographs of the individual, nodding flowers of hellebores is to take the flower and twist it around the bract (the leafy stuff on the flower stem) until it is pointing up or out. It may take a couple of tries but it always works. No crawling around for me. Carolyn

  6. Wow! Carolyn you are so amazing! Earlier I was introduced to the world of snowdrops for the first time and now to the sex lives of hellebores! They are so gorgeous! How I wish they can be planted here with their beautiful flowers and colours, will make my garden the envy of everybody!

  7. As a new fan of hellebores, I clicked on this post, not because of the catchy title, but because in my world you are the authority on hellebores.

    RE : species versus hybrids.
    When is a hybrid acceptable (ie. you would have it in your garden) ?

    • B-a-g, I am honored to be called the authority on hellebores (other people who do not know about my status will need a catchy title to draw their attention). I am not quite sure what you are asking. The species are much more subtle than the hybrids, more expensive, harder to find, and, in many cases, you have to like green flowers, which I love, to appreciate them. So for most gardeners, hybrid hellebores would be all they would ever want or need. I have hundreds of hybrid hellebores in my ornamental gardens. If you are asking how to choose a hybrid, it would be based on the flower. I believe that in all things garden individual preference and not what the authorities say is most desirable should predominate. However, I like large, rounded flowers with overlapping petals and good clear colors. I am currently building up my collection of good yellows. White, cream, yellow, and pink show up the best in the landscape. I also like double flowers, semi-double flowers, petaloid flowers (the nectaries have turned into an interior ruffle), and picotee flowers (dark edges and veins and often dark nectaries). If this doesn’t answer your question, please comment again. Carolyn

  8. Goodness, talk about mixed parentage! Great post Carolyn, I’d love to track down Helleborus viridis, beautiful and fragrant – hard to beat.

  9. Sweet Bay Says:

    I have only one seedling Hellebore that hasn’t bloomed yet, but it’s interesting to see all of these different species. You have a great collection!

  10. Another great post. As I said in an earlier comment you are slowly tempting me to start buying hellebores. They are obviously a promiscuous bunch but the offspring are lovely.

  11. Dear Carolyn, Another great post! I love the green hellebores! How nice of you to publish the adorable letter from Tara. So glad she is doing so well. P x

  12. Sharon Halpin Says:

    Wow! What an extraordinary combination of photos and text, Carolyn! Your passion for these special plants shines through! I would love to see photos of the true leaves someday, especially those of the H. torquatus and the H. multifidus subspecies. Thanks for posting Tara’s colorful and exuberant card. I’m so glad she’s back in school and hope there’s additional positive news in the future.

    • Sharon, your support of Tara and her family has been very much appreciated. I forwarded them your first day of spring email, and it made them very happy. I will try to work leaf photographs into a post. There are only a few types of plants I collect, hellebores, snowdrops, epimediums, European wood anemone, native spring ephemerals, magnolias, and I love them all. Carolyn

  13. Carolyn: The two Hellebore plants I have were listed as orientalis, though they’re quite different. One is spotted/multicolored and the other is darker and more of a solid magenta. I would love to track down cyclophyllus — the chartreuse must be amazing next to purple and pink flowers! You know more about Hellebores than I could ever hope to know. Thanks for all your knowledge! –Beth

  14. I’ve been away for just a short while, and what do I find now at Carolun’s Shade Gardens…a naughty post? Tsk tsk tsk.
    I was wondering whether spring has formally presented herself here. Happy to see all the fabulous helebores blooming. And happier to see Tara’s card for us…so thankful that she is healthy and back in school.
    Happy springtime to you dear Carolyn.
    Rosie

  15. Carolyn, at the moment I only have a couple of Hellebores in the garden. If my interest in them grows and I need information, I now know who to turn to. I did have Helleborus purpurascens in the garden a number of years ago and this will be one which I will look out for again.

  16. Carolyn, how splendid to read all this information, having had the chance to join in your hellebore seminar last week. It’s great to be reminded of all the names and characteristics of the species hellebores that you showed. Yesterday I found myself discussing some hybrid hellebores in flower in someone’s garden with a new-found knowledge and confidence!
    I love the three species with purple in their flowers and leaves, even though as you say they do not show up so well in the landscape.
    And has it really been snowing with you – after all that glorious spring weather we enjoyed last week?!

    • Jill, So fun to have you come to my seminar and give you enough information to make you dangerous. It has been very cold here with temperatures in the low 20s F (-7 F) every morning for almost a week. You picked the right time to visit. Carolyn

  17. Carolyn – I love your posts! My hellebores are in glorious bloom. I don’t keep track of their names, just their performance which is always spectacular. I’m so glad to hear Tara is feeling well — what a cute card!

  18. How wonderful to see Tara’s thank you! And to learn so much about hellebores, which I adore. They are all so beautiful – Maybe some day I will have a shade garden full!

  19. I love blog posts that actually teach me something. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and the photos to illustrate them. I knew there were hybrid hellebores, but I sure didn’t know it was so hard to find the pure species. They are right up there with columbines, aren’t they?

  20. Excellent post! Now I’m out examining my hellebores, trying to figure out their ancestry!

  21. Love the title!! I think the heleborus purpurascens is my favorite. I love the different colors in the petals.

  22. Your knowledge of hellebores is impressive and hopefully some of what I read has soaked in to my head. I am so glad to here that Tara is doing better and is back at school.

  23. Carolyn thank you for another interesting information packed post, I am seeing snowdrops and hellebores in a new light ;o)

    I love Tara’s card tell her thank you if you see her, I glad she is back at school, I imagine she is in remmission and I hope it lasts long,
    Frances

    • Frances, I do have one more post on hellebores to do to cover the whole gammit. Snowdrops are definitely done for the season. Tara is in remission and continues to have many complicated medical issues, but she is doing as well as anyone would want. Carolyn

  24. Hello Carolyn,
    Another fascinating blog with lovely photos and information. I’ve always viewed all our hybrid hellebores as just that, without thinking about origins, but some that we have look very like H.atrorubens and H. purpurescens. I wonder if some of the parental influences are proper recessives, and so only revert in garden hybrids occasionally. Whatever, we love them at this time of the year, and I shall view them as a more complex group in future. Thanks again, Julian
    http://www.thegardenimpressionists.co.uk

    • Julian, I would be surprised if we weren’t talking about dominant and recessive genes because of the way it all works. Now that I know the species parents intimately, I am always seeing their influences in the hybrids. I was just looking at a hybrid I bought a few years ago at a nursery because it was “interesting”, and it is almost certainly almost pure H. torquatus, which is rare but used a lot in breeding. Carolyn

  25. Gorgeous photos! Funnily enough, my daughters and I were at a garden centre and were drawn to the hellebores. My 9-year, Zoe, suggested that we get some for our garden as we were attracted by the colours of both the flowers and foliage. I told her I’ll need to do a bit of research, hence found your blog. Any suggestions on growing clematis in shady areas. Thanks.

  26. Fascinating look at hellebores. I will look on my ‘Royal Heritage’ grouping with new appreciation!

  27. Dear Carolyn – I read every word and overwhelmed by your knowledge and beautiful varieties. Aside from the white and green shades, I am very taken with Helleborus purpurascens :)Still feel I need an actual tour with you though to digest it all.
    Was interested in the various native growing conditions in particular – which would do best in dryish shade?
    And have you created your own hybrids with manual cross pollination?

    The news about Tara makes for a happy ending to a magnificent post

    • Laura, H. purpurascens is my favorite of the species and should be much easier to find in England. Jill from landscapelover was in Philadelphia for a conference and came for an actual tour, lunch, and a garden visit. It was very fun. All the species I mentioned grow in the wild in dry shade, among other conditions, except H. viridis. But I find that hellebores are tough and grow anywhere except locations that are not well-drained. I have not created my own hybrids intentionally but they are creating themselves in my garden all the time by crossing and producing seedlings. Some of them are quite interesting. The news about Tara is good, but I have discovered that even the best progress with this type of cancer is very difficult. Carolyn

  28. Carolyn, I loved hellebores before, but with your posts and all the info you offer I think I will become an “addict” though I have no place to cultivate them. My favorite would be H. purpurascens an H. orientalis for their photogenic attributes, but I have worked on images in the past months and all can be as good as these ones. I hope next year I will have a garden to try at least a few of your collection! thanks so much, Lula

  29. Karin Machanic Says:

    Are heleborus Jacob able to withstand Vermont winters when planted in the garden?

  30. You have grown Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus?

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