Helleborus multifidus
Helleborus multifidus Visiani

This is a crucial member of the group of green and purple flowered species from Italy and the Balkans as, in its different forms, it seems to provide links with so many of the others. This species includes some good, gardenworthy plants with large yellowish-green flowers showing an uncanny resemblance to H. odorus while the few with purplish flowers seem akin to H. torquatus. But it is those with exceptionally finely divided leaves, subsp. hercegovinus, which gardeners naturally associate with this species. This not only makes a good foliage plant for the garden but is a possible parent to be used for improving the foliage of the Orientalis Hybrids.

This species has been divided into four subspecies whose distinct characteristics are more or less matched by their separate areas of distribution. In general this is a plant of relatively inhospitable terrain, usually limestone country, sometimes in open and exposed situations, sometimes in the shade.


This description covers all four subspecies, the distinguishing features of each are then described individually. This is a truly herbaceous plant reaching about 12in (30cm) in height or slightly more, with foliage which varies greatly in the degree of segmentation - rather sparse in subsp. istriacus and almost lacy in subsp. hercegovinus. The flowers are on the small side, generally 1-2in (2.5-5cm), with up to eight on a stem, usually green in colour and in some forms they are scented. The flowers tend to appear in mid winter, soon after Christmas in the UK, and some forms are a little tender compared with other species and may be susceptible to damage from icy winds. Special features are described under the individual subspecies.

Natural distribution

As a species, H. multifidus grows in a great arc stretching from Sicily through most of the rest of Italy into northern Yugoslavia and down the western side of the country; each subspecies grows in only part of this area. In most of Italy except the north the form found is subsp. bocconei while subsp. hercegovinus is found in the Adriatic mountains of Yugoslavia, in particular the south-east corner of the province of Hercegovina. On either side of the Italy/Yugoslavia border subsp. istriacus is found while subsp. multifidus grows in the central region of the Adriatic mountains of Yugoslavia, north of the area where subsp. hercegovinus occurs.

H. multifidus subspecies multifidus

Distinctive features

This too has been treated as a subspecies of H. odorus in the past, but with little justification. The flowers on plants both in the wild and in cultivation are very variable, although they are generally 1-11/2in (2.5-4cm) across with up to seven flowers per stem. Flowers we have seen on cultivated plants of wild origin have varied from a quite dark slightly metallic green, through a paler green with dark veins (though never reaching what we could call yellow), to flowers which are dark green on the outside edged with purple and with slight purplish veining and pale green inside.

We have also seen plants with various degrees of stronger dark veining and as such approach H. torquatus with which it probably merges where their ranges meet in Bosnia. A nervous anxiety develops with the realisation that some forms of this subspecies occur with the tints, markings or veins usually attributed to H. torquatus. Both plants occur in the same general area, indeed they grow in valleys just 15 miles (25km) apart. Some experts therefore support the reversion of H. torquatus to a subspecies of H. multifidus as subsp. serbicus but more field work will be needed before these problems can finally be resolved.

Natural distribution and habitat

The range of this Yugoslavian subspecies is restricted to the coastal mountains, though not on the coast itself, especially inland from Zadar and Split. It grows on rough, open, grassy or bracken covered slopes, in open scrub and light woodland, sometimes in exposed positions and often in very poor soil amongst limestone rocks. It grows with Asarum europeaum, Cardamine pentaphyllos, Crocus vernus var. albus, Cytisus purpureus, Daphne mezereum, Erythronium dens-canis, Gentiana asclepiadea and G. verna, Geranium phaeum, Hepatica nobilis, Iris graminea and I. pallida, Orchis morio, Paeonia peregrina, Paris quadrifolia and Primula elatior.

H. multifidus subspecies bocconei

H. multifidus subsp. bocconei (Tenore) B. Mathew


The flowers can open before Christmas but generally appear from January until about March. They are rather variable in size, not much more than 11/2in (4cm) in some wild populations although we have seen plants in gardens with flowers larger than those of most other forms, 2-21/2in (5-7cm) across. They open green before becoming paler, especially towards the edge where mature flowers may be greenish white, though not yellow, in colour. Some may have a darker green stripe in the centre. The flowers are scented, with an elderflower or Ribes-like scent detectable to varying degrees.

The individual flowers are rather variable in shape, some may be beautifully rounded and even while other flowers may have a mixture of some rounded petals and others more narrow and pointed. The petals hardly overlap at all, and then only at the base, giving a more or less starry look. Some large flowered forms are very striking, especially if the flowers are slightly outward facing as they may sometimes be. Martyn Rix reports seeing a double form in the wild growing near Florence.

The leaves are divided into five, six or seven leaflets with these in turn divided to half way or more, though less deeply divided than some other forms, giving a total of about 20 segments. Some mature and well established plants may have twice this number. The individual segments vary rather, some may be quite broad and oval in shape while others may be narrow and almost linear. The margins are coarsely toothed and the undersides are less hairy than other forms, sometimes completely hairless or just slightly hairy. There are no named forms of this plant grown in gardens.

Natural distribution and habitat

Growing naturally in Central and Southern Italy including Sicily the range of this species neither overlaps with, nor even adjoins that of any other subspecies of H. multifidus. In the past, the Sicilian plants have been seen as distinct and named H. siculus but there are variations in the populations both on Sicily and on the mainland so there is no justification for separating them.

This subspecies is found in woodland and scrub, usually in shaded situations but especially where the coverage is relatively light. It grows with Allium flavum, Anemone appennina, Cardamine bulbifera, Hepatica nobilis, Lathyrus vernus, Primula vulgaris, Ranunculus millefoliatus and Scilla bifolia.

H. multifidus subspecies hercegovinus

Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus (Martinis) B.Mathew

Distinctive features

One feature of this subspecies makes it stand out from the others and indeed from all other hellebores. The leaves are circular in outline and repeatedly divided to such an extent that as many as 185 divisions have been counted on just one leaf. However this is an exceptional number of divisions, 50 is a minimum with 100 being quite common. The individual segments are long and thin, often as narrow as 1/4in (6mm) across, and slightly but regularly toothed along the edges. The young leaves are usually slightly hairy on the undersides and the foliage of a mature plant is very impressive. The result is a beautiful lacy mound of foliage which must be unique amongst hardy perennials making this is an unjustly neglected plant.

The flowers of this subspecies are not very impressive. They are mostly less than 2in (5cm) across, pale green or yellow green in colour and cup shaped, with the individual petals curved or almost hooked in shape. Young plants may have just two or three flowers on a stem, taking some years to build up to eight or nine. Normal flowering time is February and March. There are no named forms of this plant grown in gardens.

Natural distribution and habitat

This plant is restricted to the south-east corner of the province of Hercegovina in southern Yugoslavia, growing mainly in the coastal mountains but not along the coast itself. It is found in open or slightly shaded places in rocky terrain or in scrub and woodland which is not too dense. It grows in oak scrub with Allium senescens, Aristolochia rotunda, Arum nigrum, Crocus tomassinianus, Cyclamen hederifolium, Euphorbia mysinites, Muscari comosum and M. neglectum, Ophrys cornuta, O. bertolonii and O. scolopax, Orchis morio and O. provincialis var. pauciflora, Satureia montana and Scilla pratensis.

H. multifidus subspecies istriacus

Helleborus multifidus subsp. istriacus (Schiffner) Merxmuller & Podlech

Distinctive features

The leaves are divided less than the other three subspecies, with perhaps as few as 10 divisions on occasions; twenty five seems to be the maximum while about a dozen is more common. The divisions themselves may be almost 11/2in (4cm) wide and hairy underneath while the young foliage may have coppery tints. In some forms the flowers may develop purple tints on the outside of the petals as they age. Some plants are difficult to pin down, having similarities to this subspecies and also to H. odorus and some populations in south east Slovenia almost seem to be mixed. As recently as 1961 this form was regarded by some botanists as a subspecies of H. odorus. There are no named forms of this plant grown in gardens.

Natural distribution and habitat

This subspecies straddles the border between Italy and Yugoslavia and follows the mountains towards Rijeka on Yugoslavia's Adriatic coast. It grows in open scrub and lightly shaded areas as well as glades in denser woodland. Plants growing with this species include Crocus vernus var. albus, Cyclamen hederifolium, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, Hepatica nobilis, Muscari comosum and Primula veris, Pulmonaria angustifolia and Pulsatilla pratensis var. nigricans.


In general light shade and limy, rich but well drained conditions suit all four subspecies although biting winds can sometimes burn the flowering shoots of subsp. bocconei so shelter is advisable. Avoid frost pockets and try to plant in a spot where a nearby evergreen shrub or an evergreen shelter belt can give the protection from icy winds they need. If this also provides shade for part of the day, so much the better. Rich conditions combined with good drainage are especially important for subsp. hercegovinus as this is a relatively slow growing plant and if starved its susceptibility to black spot attack may be excacerbated.

Icy winds can damage the mature anthers and the stigmas of subsp. hercegovinus preventing seed set even when hand pollinated, although the petals and the rest of the plant may remain undamaged. In cold areas this plant will appreciate dry bracken or leaves as a cover against frost damage.

In gardens

On the relatively few occasions when plants are offered a subspecific name is not always attached. What you actually have if you obtain a plant as H. multifidus will usually be one with smallish, green flowers and narrowly cut, repeatedly dissected foliage probably making quite an attractive foliage plant.

The most popular in gardens should probably be subsp. hercegovinus and some of the larger flowered forms of subsp. bocconei. Seed and plants of subsp. hercegovinus have occasionally been available over the years but the plant has been slow to become well known. It is also slow growing and naturally takes some years to develop its finest feature. But as existing plants become more established and develop their dissected foliage to the full, it seems clear that the popularity of this subspecies will increase.

One of the most striking forms of subsp. bocconei to be distributed comes from Robin White and is derived from Will McLewin's form with large, slightly outward facing flowers.

Jim Archibald and Will McLewin seem responsible, directly or indirectly, for most of the subsp. istriacus which is available at present but this is probably the least gardenworthy of the four having so few leaf divisions and but modest green flowers. The flowers of subsp. multifidus are also modest but the increased segmentation of the leaves is more appealing and those with red-tinted young foliage are especially attractive. Of course once in gardens these four subspecies will all cross with other hellebores unless hand pollinated.

Helleborus multifidus subsp. hercegovinus
Helleborus multifidus subsp.
hercegovinus growing inGraham's garden
Words ©Graham Rice or © Graham Rice/Elizabeth Strangman 1993-2001. Pictures ©Graham Rice/gardenphotos.com unless stated. All Rights Reserved.