CAROLYN WALKER PHOTOGRAPHY BY ED WHEELER
Dividing Hybrid Hellebores
I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED TO HYBRID HELLEBORES in 1991 during a course at Longwood Gardens. I fell immediately in love. I ordered three by mail from the only source I could find, and the rest is history. I now have hundreds of plants spread throughout my gardens.
What makes hybrid hellebores so popular is their long period of ornamental interest. Their large, nodding white, cream, pink, red, purple, lime-green,or spotted flowers begin opening in midwinter. Their shiny dark leaves last through the winter until new growth begins in spring.
What makes hybrid hellebores so expensive is the relatively long time it takes for them to flower. Flowering hybrid hellebores are at least three years old in fact, they often don’t bloom until their fifth year. Over the years, I have realized that even my most sophisticated customers are afraid to touch their hellebores. Still, an economical and easy way to increase your supply of hybrid hellebores with desirable flowers is to divide your own mature plants. All the hybrid and species hellebores can be divided using this technique except Helleborus lividus, H. argutifolius, H. foetidus, and some of their crosses.
1. Select a Plant for Division
The most beautiful hellebores in my garden are the large specimens, so I only divide these when absolutely necessary to obtain more of a desirable flower color, like the clear pink shown here. My oldest plants, which are about four feet in diameter, have never been divided and show no signs of decline. The first time you divide a hellebore, select a plant that is mature enough and has five or more flower stems. Each stem represents a potential division, so I always divide my plants in late winter or very early spring as they begin to bloom. Until you’ve practiced a bit, avoid plants that have more than ten flower stems as these have become very woody and are more difficult to divide.
To dig up the plant, I use a small-bladed perennial spade, because it can be inserted easily between the hellebore and its neighbors without damaging either. Insert the spade at least eight inches into the ground in a circle about six inches from the outside of the plant. Once you have loosened the plant on all sides, pry it out of the soil and shake vigorously to remove excess soil.
3. Wash the Roots
Wash the remainder of the soil off the roots. I prefer to use a watering wand with a fairly strong spray. Keep turning the plant and rinsing it from all angles to thoroughly remove the soil. The better you can see the roots, the easier it will be to divide.
4. Make the cuts
For dividing, I use a heavy duty stainless steel knife with a very sharp, wide blade that is serrated from the middle back. Hellebore rootballs are substantial and can be quite woody, so it is very important that you don’t attempt to divide them with a dull or undersized blade. Make your cuts where you see natural divisions in the crown below the flower stems. You must get at least one bud, some woody rhizome, and some roots with each division. In your first attempt, stick to cutting your plants into three divisions.
Dig a hole slightly deeper than the roots and about three times as wide. Mix the excavated soil with an equal amount of pure compost. Hold the division in the middle of the hole with the crown at surface level and fill in around it with the soil compost mixture, pressing the soil in firmly as you go. Mulch your new plant with leaf mulch. Water it well and continue watering until frost. Established hybrid hellebores planted in the shade require no additional water even in periods of drought. I never water or fertilize my plants, but I do renew their leaf mulch yearly.