It may seem curiously inappropriate to mention Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, in March but in reality this lovely plant rarely flowers as early as its common name suggests. Even so it may seem a bit late, when the multitude of coloured H. hybridus plants are in full flower, but I am writing about plants in this garden and the three plants I put in a few months ago are looking at their best right now.
Although this is the most instantly recognised of all hellebores and is widely available, it is not the easiest to grow and in most cases, if you want a nice white hellebore you would be better off with a good white H. hybridus such as the lovely double ‘Mrs Betty Ranicar’ from Tasmania, which comes more or less true from seed. If you can get some of the new German HGC clonal cultivars such as the very early ‘Josef Lemper’ or ‘Joshua’ or the fragrant ‘Jacob’ they are worth buying. The only problem with the white H. hybridus is that, even in their best forms, the flowers tend to hang down and hide their beauty whereas H. niger tends to have outward-facing flowers.
Helleborus niger is native to mountainous areas of central and southern Europe including Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. The flowers are typically white but some have more or less pink colouration, especially as they age. The most famous is ‘Potter’s Wheel’ which is a seed strain with larger than usual flowers.
It has been a feature of British and Irish gardens for centuries, valued for its early flowers, but it can be tricky to please. It needs a spot in part shade and needs a deep and humus-rich soil that is alkaline so I am hoping my ever-present mushroom compost will do the trick. You will not have any problems getting plants but try to buy potted plants and avoid cheap, bare-root plants which will have trouble establishing themselves.
Although attempts have been made to hybridise this species with H. hybridus this has not proved very successful with one notable exception, the fabulous pink ‘Walberton’s Rosemary’. But its courtship with other species, particularly the shrubby species, has been successful. H. x nigercors is the hybrid with H. argutifolius, H. x ballardiae is the hybrid with H. lividus and H. x ericsmithii is a hybrid with H. x sternii (itself a hybrid of H. argutifolius and H. lividus.