Saturday 3 December 2011

Cutting-back hellebores

The 'woodland' path earlier today.
Developing hellebore buds.
Cutting-off the old leaves of the hellebores, which I've been doing today, is an important winter task - it tidies up the plants, enabling emerging flowers to be seen easily and it is said to help control fungal disease, but there are two other important considerations. Firstly, big hellebore leaves are very smothering of smaller plants below them, and in wind they move around, flattening anything in their radius. In a garden like this, crammed with small bulbs betwen larger plants, that can be quite damaging. Secondly, while hidden under the protective layer of old leaves the buds are particularly vulnerable to being eaten by mice or voles. Removing the leaves denies them this shelter from predators (mostly owls here) and the buds are usually left unmolested thereafter.

When asked about defoliating hellebores, I usually say that it's a good job to do around Christmas, really just as a peg to hang the task to: you don't want to cut the leaves off too early, when the plant is still benefitting from them, or too late, when the new shoots are coming up and have to be carefully avoided. In most seasons Christmas is about the ideal time, but with the mild autumn and early winter there is too much movement in the garden to wait until then. The hellebore buds are developing, and snowdrop noses are emerging fast. In some corners here there are masses of Cyclamen coum seedlings under the hellebores, and these also need exposure to light. I try to snip the petioles as close to the base as possible, cutting them individually with secateurs. To reduce the risk - I hope - of transmitting the transmission of Helleborus net necrosis virus ("black death"), I wipe the secateur blades with methylated spirits between each plant. It may just be ju-ju and a waste of time, but one feels to be doing the right thing!

A swarm of Cyclamen coum seedlings  - an excellent reason to defoliate the hellebores above them..

The path later: hellebore leaves all gone and Galanthus plicatus 'Three Ships' visible.


  1. I was just thinking today that I ought to cut back the hellebore leaves, especially as I know of someone Cheshire way who has one in flower

  2. I planted a new plant 2 months ago so I wonder if I should cut back the leaves as well?

  3. As you stated, this is a job normally done around Christmas; with me, normally in the last week of December. However, this year I did the job last week and quite a few new flowers were showing and some were as hight as twenty cm.

    I've never tried planting Cyclamen coum between the hellebore plants and must give it a try.

  4. John,
    Thanks for this info, will work on my plants in the next few weeks. I noticed H. niger "Ivory Prince" blooming on November 30 this year, wow very early. Last year the niger buds survived 5 bouts of snow and ice before blooming.

  5. A timely reminder I usually do mine around Christmas and I looked a couple of days ago to check for "black death" and they were all OK but forgot to look for emerging flower buds!
    (The months are wizzing too fast .... as usual)

  6. There are some great tips on your site, i am trying my best to maintain my nanna's garden for her but she can't really help, unfortunately I have no-one to ask for tips and she is too sick to bother with this stuff. She has helebores, or what I now know are helebores, lol. and these are great tips to help me keep them going to survive winter. thanks.

    I have just been looking on
    and i might try and get her an indoor water feature for Christmas, they're therapeutic and brings a bit of outdoors indoors.

  7. I bought this flower just befor Xmas,,,kept it inside until May and I just think now when do I need to cut the leaves out and when can I plant the plant outside,any sugections?

  8. do you have to dead head the flowers?. ours got a bit black after frosts. thanks john.

  9. Hi John. Have had a bad experience with so called gardener who has strimmed a large patch of these beauties. There are about 2 plants left standing out of about 15. Is there anything I can do to try and limit the damage or are they a gonner? Thank you. Bridget


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