These are some of the questions I am most frequently asked about hellebore hybrids.
What growing conditions do they like?
They are tough and easy to care for plants that tolerate a wide range of conditions and will grow happily in most soil types. The addition of leaf mould or well-rotted garden compost, dug well in at planting time, is beneficial, and on dry soils a yearly mulch will help to retain moisture. A position in semi shade, such as that provided by deciduous trees, is ideal. For full details see the cultivation section.
Why are my plants covered in black marks?
Hellebores are remarkably hardy and resistant to pests and diseases but they can, like any plants, suffer on occasion from a wide range of problems. Black spot takes on many forms, the marks are either black or brown and can appear as anything from numerous small speckles to large round marks and blotches. Leaves and flowers can be attacked and in severe cases it can cause complete stems to topple. It is often at its worst in late winter/spring as the new flowers and leaves emerge. Although wet conditions can worsen the problem I have noticed that some plants have a definite susceptibility to infection, and there is a chance that this will be passed to any offspring. If the attack is mild I recommend simply removing the leaves that are affected, but in more severe cases it pays to spray with a systemic fungicide. If you only have a few plants to treat it can be purchased ready mixed in a handy spray pump.
My plants get aphids each year, what should I do?
Aphids can attack plants, often in late spring / early summer. Clear sticky marks appear on foliage while the insects, often out of sight, live on the underside of leaves. The aphids are green and under favourable conditions can multiply rapidly, so it is best to squash them (wear a pair of latex gloves if you find the idea particularly unappealing) or use a soap based insecticide. It is unwise to leave them in any significant numbers as they don't just create an unsightly mess but can also act as a vector for viruses.
Why do I never notice any seedlings around my plants?
This must be the question I am asked more than any other - I find it difficult to answer because my own garden is always covered with a mass of seedlings. I feel one of the most likely explanations is over thorough tidying. Germination is very slow (from October to December) and if you hoe or weed near the plants during this time the seeds, which put down a single root before emerging, can easily be destroyed. Another possibility is that the seed remains too dry from the time it falls to the ground in June until the point it starts to grow. This will inhibit germination. If your soil is very dry a summer mulch could help prevent this.
Hellebores don't do well in my garden, is there anything I can do?
This is quite unusual, but a few people do find that their garden soil fails to produce healthy plants. The cultural conditions can appear fine and there are not always obvious reasons. If you've had this problem I would recommend the use of pots. All my stock plants grow happily for many years in plastic pots, only being potted on when absolutely necessary. I use a soil based compost with added peat and grit. A multi purpose peat based compost is not really suitable on its own for such long term planting as it can become compacted, leading to waterlogging and root rot. Regular watering and feeding in a shady spot during summer will be rewarded by the chance to place flowering plants by doorways or in other areas where they can best be admired during the winter.
Why do the flowering plants offered for sale have no leaves?
Although these plants naturally keep their leaves in winter they are often sold with them removed for two reasons. Firstly, the leaves can provide a convenient breeding ground for black spot and secondly, by late winter they have inevitably become tatty and have to be removed as the new leaves emerge. It is really a matter of personal choice whether they are cut off around Christmas or retained to provide a foil for the flowers.
Why do some of my plants fail to spread?
A plant that is poorly looked after will, of course, fail to flourish, but setting this aside I noticed many years ago that there was another factor at play. Some plants spread to form a large clump while others appear little changed many years after planting. There is always the possibility of virus so leaves should be checked for unusual yellow marks or distortion but usually the plants appear healthy. I was completely puzzled by this until I studied how the various colours and forms have been developed and it was then that I discovered that many originated from just one or two plants. In these cases the plants often have to be selfed, or at least crossed with closely related plants and this has, I feel, caused a level of genetic weakness. Basically this means they have suffered, rather like many of the dogs at Crufts, from inbreeding. It does seem strange that plants, as opposed to animals, can have this problem, and it has taken me years to appreciate just how complex the whole topic is. In cases where a plant has attributes that you covet, such as an exceptional colour, you can try hand pollinating it with a stronger plant (the botanical equivalent of a bit of rough!) in the hope of producing some good offspring. The downside of this is that it will take three years for your plants to flower so plenty of patience is needed. It's great fun though, and there is always the chance of a really exceptional plant, so good luck!