How to grow hellebores
Hellebores produce their pretty, nodding blooms in winter and early spring, which makes them a valuable asset in any garden. Braving the chill, they are hardy, compact and low maintenance, and their flowers provide valuable nectar for early pollinators. What’s more, most are happy in partial shade, where their usually evergreen leaves provide interest all year round.
- Flowers from late winter to spring
- Many are evergreen, some have silver or marbled leaves
- Most are hardy, and happy in partial or dappled shade
- Plant from autumn to spring in moist, free-draining soil
- Divide in early autumn or grow new plants from seed
- Valuable nectar source for early bumblebees
All you need to know
What are hellebores?
Hellebores are perennials, mainly native to woodland edges, so they enjoy dappled shade – although some will also grow in sun, others in deeper shade. Many have bold evergreen leaves, some marbled or silvery for added appeal. These hardy plants bloom in winter and early spring, when little else is in its prime.
The most popular and easy-to-grow hellebores are the Oriental hybrids (Helleborus x hybridus) – there are hundreds to choose from, with flowers in shades of cream, pink or ruby, often speckled for added allure.
Hellebores that form larger clumps, topped with clusters of small green flowers, include our native stinking hellebore (H. foetidus) and the holly-leaved hellebore (H. argutifolius) from Corsica.
There are also various other hellebores that need more specialist attention, mainly because they dislike cold, wet soil or harsh frosts, so are best sheltered in a greenhouse over winter.
How to choose hellebores
Hellebores can be divided into two main groups, based on how easy they are to grow and their preferred growing conditions.
Helleborus × hybridus, commonly known as Oriental hybrids, are hardy and long lived, with nodding flowers in subtle shades of white, pink, ruby or dark, dusky plum. Some have open saucer-shaped flowers, ideal for pollinators, while others have double flowers with a multitude of petals. They have dark evergreen leaves all year round.
Oriental hybrids are often sold as 'selections' or 'series', which means their flower colours may vary, so they are best bought in bloom, when you can choose your favourite shades. To browse photos and descriptions of many Oriental hybrids, go to RHS Find a Plant.
Other easy-to-grow hellebores with attractive foliage and flowers include:
hybrid between H.× sternii and H. niger. Large white flowers, tinged pink, are produced on pink stems above green toothed leaves with white veins and a metallic sheen. Height to 35cm (14in)
A hybrid plant is the offspring produced by cross-pollinating one specific cultivar with another different cultivar. This process of cross-pollination, rather than pollination between plants of the same cultivar, generally creates stronger, healthier, improved offspring, said to have ‘hybrid vigour’.
These hellebores, and their hybrids and cultivars, enjoy sun for at least part of the day, although H. foetidus will grow in deeper shade. They tend to be short lived, but removing the flowering stems once the blooms fade in spring will encourage new growth.
Hellebores that need more care
Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) is widely known and widely grown, but it can be challenging to keep going, as it needs excellent drainage in winter. It’s ideal for winter container displays, in free-draining compost, producing snowy white flowers from the festive season onwards
H. thibetanus is a delicate beauty, ideal for enthusiasts. Unusually, this hellebore is deciduous, so dies back in late summer then re-sprouts in spring. It dislikes wet conditions during its dormant period
For the best results, grow these hellebores in containers and overwinter them in a cool greenhouse or beside a south- or west-facing wall for shelter.
For an idea of the wide colour selection that hellebores offer see:
Hellebores with white flowers
Hellebores with pink or yellow flowers
Hellebores with dark flower shades
Hellebores with marbled or bold leaves
How to buy hellebores
Hellebores are usually sold in flower in winter and spring, for immediate planting. They are widely available in garden centres and by mail-order from online suppliers.
Young plants are offered in 9cm (3½in) pots, as well as more mature plants in containers of up to 2 litres, to provide greater impact.
When to plant
The best time to plant hellebores is from autumn to spring, and they are most often bought in flower, ready for planting.
However, they can be planted at any time of year, although it's best to avoid the dry summer months.
Where to plant
Hellebores can be grown in the ground or in containers. Most like:
light or dappled shade, with sun for part of the day
soil enriched with organic matter
conditions that are neither very dry not waterlogged
There are a few exceptions:
Helleborus foetidus prefers deeper shade
H. lividus, H. niger and H. thibetanus like a cool, sheltered spot in light shade with free-draining soil. If your soil is heavy or poorly drained, plant in a raised bed or a container, for improved drainage
How to plant
Position plants at the same level they were growing in their original container – hellebores don’t like to being planted too deep
Lay a mulch of organic matter over the soil to help stop it drying out, leaving a gap around the base of the plant to avoid rotting
Planting in containers
Most hellebores should only be planted temporarily in containers, as part of a winter display. Then in spring, after flowering, transplant permanently into a border.
RHS guide to planting in containers
RHS guide to planting a container display
Hellebores that need protection from frost and winter wet are best planted permanently in containers, so they can be easily moved in winter into a greenhouse, under the house eaves or into a dry, sheltered spot at the base of a wall. These include Helleborus lividus, H. thibetanus, H. niger, H. × sternii and H. × ericsmithii.
- Choose a container that is only slightly larger than the original pot
- Plant in free-draining compost – ideally John Innes No.3 compost mixed with 30 per cent by volume of peat-free multipurpose compost and 10-20 per cent perlite or horticultural grit
- Position the plant at the same level it was in the original pot
Newly planted hellebores need regular watering during their first growing season, from spring to summer
Established plants will benefit from watering during hot dry spells
Hellebores in containers need watering regularly, as they can dry out very quickly. Keep them out of summer sun to reduce water loss
RHS guide to collecting and storing rainwater
RHS video guide to watering efficiently
Hellebores in borders seldom need additional feeding
If growth is poor, this is likely to be due to drying out or waterlogged soil, rather than a lack of nutrients, so check for these first
If you still wish to feed, apply a general-purpose fertiliser, such as growmore or fish, blood and bone in spring, at 50-70g per square metre (1½-2oz per square yard)
Plants in containers have less access to nutrients, so need regular feeding with a balanced liquid fertiliser. To encourage flowering, use a potassium-rich fertiliser, such as tomato feed
RHS guide to looking after plants in containers
RHS guide to feeding plants
Spread a generous layer of mulch over the soil around plants annually, and top up when necessary – see our guide to mulching.
TOP TIP Why add mulch?
An organic mulch, such as home-made compost, is a great way to add nutrients and valuable micro-organisms to your soil. It also holds in moisture and deters weed germination.
H. niger needs excellent drainage in winter, as it dislikes sitting in cold, damp soil. So it’s best to grow it in a container, keeping it in a sheltered spot through winter (such as at the base of a south- or west-facing house wall)
Caring for older plants
These hellebores often self-seed and the resulting offspring can grow to smother the original plant. So dig up and move seedlings before they get too large, or remove the seed pods before they open, cutting stems at the base, to prevent unwanted seedlings
Remove any damaged or diseased foliage in autumn
Once the flowers have faded in late spring, remove the old flower stems and ageing leaves to encourage new growth from the base. Leave some seedpods if you want plants to self-seed
The easiest way to make new plants of most hellebores is by digging up and dividing the clumps – see our guide to dividing perennials. This is best done in early autumn, although you can also do it in spring, straight after flowering.
When replanting the smaller clumps you have made, position them so the first roots at the base of the growing shoots is 2.5cm (1in) below the soil surface. Water regularly for the first growing season, until well rooted in.
The new plants may be slow to establish, taking a couple years to flower well.
If not deadheaded, Helleborus × hybridus, H. argutifolius and H. foetidus will self-seed freely, so look out for young seedlings appearing in the surrounding soil – either leave them where they are, or carefully dig up and grow on in pots until they are sturdy young plants.
You can also collect the seeds from ripe pods and sow in mid- to late summer outdoors.
Stored seeds can be difficult to germinate and need a warm period followed by a cold period:
After sowing, keep at 15–18°C for six weeks
Then expose to winter cold or keep at 5°C for another six weeks
Germination may be sporadic and take up to a year.
The offspring of cultivars and hybrids may differ slightly from the parent, but it can be interesting to see the variations in the flowers.
Most of the widely available hellebores will perform well for years with little maintenance when grown in suitable conditions. But they will struggle in very dry or wet soils.
However, hellebores can suffer from the following leaf problems, although they aren’t usually major issues:
hellebore aphids – which can be removed by hand
hellebore leaf spot – prune out infected leaves in autumn
hellebore leaf miner – only affects Helleborus foetidus, remove damaged leaves in winter
Hellebore black death, on the other hand, is a serious disease – there is no cure and affected plants should be destroyed to prevent its spread.
RHS guide to controlling pests and diseases without chemicals
Get more advice
If you’re a member of the RHS, you can use our online Gardening Advice Service, via MyRHS, for any gardening problems or queries.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.