Tim EntwisleWinter rose trades petals for cones of honey

Most hellebore flowers have no petals. My wife Lynda discovered this in her weekly botanical art class with Mali Moir run by the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens. When you paint a flower, with accuracy, you tend to pick up details like this.

The hellebore flower has sepals, not petals

The hellebore flower has sepals, not petals

To be fair Lynda had to seek professional advice on whether the ring of coloured flaps around the crowded stamens (the male bits) and nectaries were petals, sepals (the next layer outside) or perhaps bracts. My professional advice was that yes they most certainly were one of those and we should find some reliable reference.

The hellebore, or Winter Rose, is in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, so around the cluster of stamens you would expect to find petals. Instead there are a these odd cone-like structures.

Cone-like structures inside the hellebore flower

Cone-like structures inside the hellebore flower

This ring of nectaries, or honey leaves, is found in all wild species today. They resemble olympic torches or, as colleague Neville Walsh prefers it, ice-cream cones, and they contain sweet, bee-attracting, nectar. Here are a few more.

Helleborus nectaries, or 'honey leaves'

Helleborus nectaries, or ‘honey leaves’

Cone-shaped nectaries on helleborus

Cone-shaped nectaries inside the hellebore flower

In the original hellebore flower these cones (or torches) were presumably petals because they are relatively easy to convert back to a pretty layer or two of these according to the owner of Post Office Farm Nursery in Woodend, Peter Leigh. His half hour tour of the nursery on the weekend was fascinating and revealed lots of variation in the nectary-come-petals, including these so-called anemone flowered hellebores which seem to be undecided.

Anemone-flowered hellebore

Anemone-flowered hellebore

Anemone-flowered hellebore

Close-up of the anemone-flowered hellebore

To propagate hellebores you either divide the plant or collect seed. Dividing is slow and doesn’t give you many plants. Seed can result in unwanted variability. So Peter Leigh hand pollinates plants in a bee-free shade house. This way he can keep the cultivars he likes as well as experiment a little.

Seedling hellebores at Post Office Farm Nursery

Seedling hellebores at Post Office Farm Nursery

It’s a slow business. These seedlings only emerge nine months or so after the seed has been sown. The seed has to be sown fresh and then kept moist for that entire time. It will be another two years before they flower. Like this Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica, with nectaries as you can see.

Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica

Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica

Nectaries on Helleborus argutifolius

Nectaries on Helleborus argutifolius

Nearly all hellebores come from Europe and nearby Asia. There aren’t many of them, maybe 17 species in total. There is this (next picture) single species from China, Helleborus thibetanus, from high mountains in the central part of the country. Unusually the plants are deciduous, in that they lose their leaves and become dormant after flowering. Although discovered by botanists and named in the nineteenth century this species only made it into cultivation in the UK in 1991 and presumably into Australia soon after.

Unusal deciduous Helleborus thibetanus from China

Unusal deciduous Helleborus thibetanus from China

To answer the original question, the big showy flaps on these flowers are sepals, the layer usually found outside the petals and often green in colour. In the hellebores the sepals do all the attracting of pollinators, along with cones full of lovely nectar. Except of course when breeders like Peter revert the nectaries back to petals.

To finish, a couple of hellebore flowers showing off their colourful sepals, one with cones, one without. The latter, you’ll notice, has yellow petals that you and I would now most likely mistake for sepals.


Hellebore cultivar from Post Office Farm Nursery

One of Post Office Farm Nursery's hellebore cultivars where careful breeding has reverted the nectaries back to petals for a double-flower look

One of Post Office Farm Nursery’s hellebore cultivars where careful breeding has reverted the nectaries back to petals for a double-flower look

[Editor’s note – you can see lots more of Peter Leigh’s beautiful hellebore cultivars in his recent GardenDrum blog post, Hellebores are Winter Wonders

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Tim Entwisle

About Tim Entwisle

Dr Tim Entwisle is a scientist and scientific communicator with a broad interest in plants, science and gardens, and Director & Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. Previously he was Director of Conservation, Living Collections & Estates at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and prior to that, Director of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens for eight years. Read Tim's full blog at Talking Plants

5 thoughts on “Winter rose trades petals for cones of honey

  1. Tim, Wow you really were listening during the Nursery Tour! Thanks for such a well written and insightful article on Hellebores. And the lovely images. Very glad you enjoyed your time at Post Office Farm. Regards, Peter

  2. Thanks Peter. I hope I didn’t get too much wrong! I just ended up with so many nice pictures and information I had to put (some of it) into a post. Thanks for the tour and talk – a wonderful nursery and collection. The yellow-flowered plant we bought is now in my mother’s house in Castlemaine, and the other smaller plants are now planted out in our Hawthorn front garden! Tim

  3. Adore hellebores…and I knew Mali Moir a hundred years ago! Glad she has kicked on. Great talent.

    …but while you are here Tim…heard a whisper regarding an upcoming radio national program involving your own good self…(fantastic idea…long overdue).

    …….care to comment any further?

  4. Well Eugene, you are quite right! More than a rumour now – I spoke about it with Robyn Williams on the Science Show last weekend (it was confirmed between recording and going to air, luckily). Six half-hour shows over summer. Name to be decided (shortly) but format in place – a panel with some regular members and some guests, me hosting and JIm Fogarty always regular, 5 minute OB with a person on the periphery of gardening (chef in pilot), and a few other bits and pieces… No general gardening questions. All pre-recorded for this first series of six (I’m hoping it will go beyond this). The original idea was a thinking gardener’s show but with a bit of humour and lightness. We’ll see if we achieve that! Tim

  5. I think this has the potential to be huge Tim.

    I’ve since heard you on the Science Show and you have an admirable lightness of touch. I believe you’ll be just the ticket as host.

    I dip into the http://thinkingardens.co.uk/ site occasionally and if the new show moves along similar lines to the quality of thoughts and ideas there, then it can only be a boon to the cultural life of the garden.

    I wish you all the best with this.

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