Colour in Winter Gardens 1

Helleboreweb1 We are pleased to present the first of Trevor Nottle's garden blogs for 2017

Winter is such an easy time of year in which to enjoy plants and flowers. Despite the doom and gloom written about at length by traditionally

minded gardening journalists and pop horticultural personalities winter gardens can easily be made far more interesting than many are. Yes, we have lots of rain and some windy days but mostly we do not even have heavy frosts, let alone lasting snow cover so many plants can sail through the cold weather with barely a mark.

There are shrubs and perennials that make all the difference to a garden in winter, contributing form, colour and scent as well as ease-of-culture to the scene. You can assume I will not be relating stories of rare rhododendrons of Sikkim and Kashmir, or high alpine treasures from the Andes and the Pyrenees but I will be reminding readers of the numerous plants that were well known to their grandparents and aunts, and that persist despite being less than fashionable among the style leaders of the garden industry.

In this blog I will be focussing on Winter Roses, or Hellebores.


Winter Roses have been around for more than a century, even in Australia where they are shown in naïve Colonial era paintings from van Dieman’s Land. They flower in winter and they have no relationship whatever with roses. Indeed roses are Rosaceae but hellebores are Rannunculaceae so let us not confuse things; just call them hellebores and be done with it.

In the past hellebores have been described as the “shy, quiet gems of winter’. In fact they were by and large so shy and quiet that they were regarded as dull and utilitarian. Hardy yes, but so boring. It is not unheard of, even in the most refined gardening circles, for winter roses to be known as ‘dogs’, meaning that the flowers are muddy, murky and not attractive.


Well, all that has changed with tissue culture and line breeding. Nowadays hellebores are definitely not quiet, nor are they shy and they are definitely not dull. The finest forms have been developed in the Netherlands and Australia. The likes of PENNY’S PINK and similar kinds have come as tissue cultured plantlets grown under license from the European breeders. Their large dark green leaves, heavily veined with silver and white and evergreen and leathery in appearance. They seem quite hardy in lightly shaded positions with little competition from tree and shrub roots. Through summer these plants will survive the usual heat and dry spells with only enough water to keep the soil they occupy barely damp. A coarse mulch of bagasse (sugar cane trash) helps conserve moisture and keep the root zone cool. To produce good flower displays occasional feeding with a low nitrogen general fertiliser is a worthwhile. PENNY’S PINK, and those like her, grow a short, slowly creeping rootstock that does not respond well to propagation by division, which helps to explain why they are rather expensive.


Completely different are the various colour forms and double-flowered forms of what are generally known as Helleborus orientalis or H. hybridus derivatives. The colour range in this group is remarkable for showing primrose yellow, apricot and bicolour patterns as well as kinds with distinctive central colour blotches in contrast with that of the rest of each petal; others display fine spotting and tones from deep purple red, to almost black, pure white and many shades of pinkghly desirable cultivars have a distinct silver grey cast over a background of deep red or purple. In Australia the best, and most successful breeding lines have been developed by Post Office Farm in Victoria. Their production is sold Australia wide and appears in good nurseries in late June as the plants come into flower. The same cultural requirements apply as for the former group.

When well grown Hellebores will produce abundant seed which will germinate and germinate easily in the flowing spring. Unless rigorous care is taken to cut off the seed pods before they open and drop their seed there is a risk that the seedlings so generated will slowly smother the varieties first planted. Some may be good but many will be ordina

Hellebores tend to have few diseases or pesIn very wet weather some plants my develop a kind of black spot which mars developing leaves and flowers. The best preventative is to cut all the leaves to the ground before new growth and flower stems emerge early in winter. Otherwise mulching and feeding are all they require to keep them healthy.

Much has been written about hellebores as they have a very long history in herbal medicine wherein the plants have a reputation for its ability to detoxify the body, stimulate menstruation, prevent parasites, reduce fevers, encourage weight loss, and treat spasms. However, all hellbores and all parts of every hellebore plant are poisonous, so they are best treated only as decorative garden plants. Any attempt to do more with them would be foolish and maybe even fatal. Fortunately the whole plant has an extremely unattractive smell on being crushed, broken or picked and it seems very unlikely that anyone would be tempted to try tasting it, let alone eating it. Amateur dieticians and detoxifiers should not ever try using.