Helleborus purpurascens Waldst. & Kit.
This is a variable species which at its best can be very lovely. It is unusual in opening its first flowers at soil level, sometimes very early in the season, and continuing to open them as the stems grow. After many years of unavailability this species is now becoming circulated in a number of different forms.
Although this is a fully herbaceous plant, the early flowering forms do not leave the soil bare for long for almost as soon as the leaves die off the flower stems start to emerge. The young foliage is hairy on the undersides and when mature develops a distinctive shape, with each of the leaflets breaking away from the leaf petiole almost at one point, palmate rather than pedate as in other species. There are usually five leaflets, each divided into as many as six rather irregular segments and lobes to give up to 25 divisions in all although some forms are so repeatedly divided as to resemble H. multifidus subsp. multifidus. The individual divisions are elliptical or almost linear in shape, toothed or even double toothed towards the tips but untoothed where the leaflets split and towards the base of each leaf. A mature leaf can be up to 12in (30cm) across and may be almost circular in overall outline.
The first flowers open just above ground level, sometimes as early as mid-December, and the stem then stretches to about 10in (25cm), with more flowers opening until about March. The stem is green, speckled with red, and a little more densely speckled at the base. The flowers vary enormously but are rather cup-shaped at first and may remain so or the petals may open out to a saucer shape. The two forms most usually seen are typical of the more attractive types. Stock derived from those at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh has four to seven flowers per stem, each about 11/2-2in (4-5cm) across. They are purple in colour with dark veins, slightly pinkish towards the base and netted towards the edge; some flowers have an overall green haze. Inside the flowers are green, edged with a pink haze. In a second form which reaches 15in (38cm) in height the flowers may reach 2in (5cm) across and nod at first then slowly stand up. They are smoky blue-purple in colour, darker outside than in, with slightly reddish veins inside and green nectaries.
Other forms may be slate purple or deep purple outside, shining pinkish shades, sometimes brownish or even green; some are a pale grey-blue. Inside the flowers may be more or less the same as the outside, sometimes darker veined, or they may be a contrasting green with some colour seeping through from the outside of the flower. In general the flowers tend to have a metallic or smoky cast which is especially noticeable in the paler colours. The flowers are not scented.
In gardens the most distinctive feature of this plant is the fact that the first flowers open almost as soon as the stems have pushed through the soil, sometimes as early as December. The foliage too is unlike that of other hellebores, in that it radiates from the tip of the petiole in a neat circle.
Natural distribution and habitat
Centred on Romania, the distribution of H. purpurascens follows the Carpathian mountains through western Ukraine into south eastern Poland and eastern Czechoslovakia, and also extends west of Romania into central and northern Hungary. For the great majority of this area, no other hellebores are found and H. purpurascens is fairly common so there is little chance of confusion for visitors to the area. It is also worth mentioning that the distribution of H. purpurascens is distinct from the two other purple flowered species with which it may be confused. To the west is the small area where H. atrorubens occurs, while H. torquatus is found some distance to the south west.
This species seems to be most frequently seen in open grassy alpine meadows growing in thin turf over limestone. It grows in full sun and the only shade it appears to receive is from its own leaves. When found growing in ancient beechwoods it is noticeably shy flowering and does not make large clumps.
In a nature reserve near Sinaia in the Carpathians in Romania H. purpurascens grows with an exciting range of plants including Aconitum lasianthum, Ajuga pyramidalis, Campanula persicifolia, Centaurea atropurpurea, Cicerbita alpina, Clematis alpina, Cortusa matthioli, Dianthus speculifolius, D. barbatus, Digitalis grandiflora, Erysimum witmanii subsp. transsilvanicum, Lilium martagon, Lychnis viscaria, Platanthera bifolia, Pulmonaria rubra, Symphytum cordatum and Trollius europaeus.
Gisela Schiemann has seen it growing with Adonis volgensis, Colchicum autumnale, Crocus banaticus, Gagea sp. and Pulsatilla halleri.
Although at Kew this species has been grown in the open, in well manured silty soil for many years these are not the conditions in which it is usually seen. However, given its tendency to grow in open situations in the wild planting in full sun in a soil improved with organic matter is perfectly sensible. Dappled shade is its usual location in gardens, where it seems to thrive in leafy, moisture retentive conditions.
Both the emerging flower stems and the foliage are sometimes badly damaged by leaf spot so precautionary spraying is advisable, especially for very early flowering forms. This species also makes a very lovely pot plant when grown in a large pot in a cold but very well ventilated greenhouse. This not only gives the emerging flowers protection from the worst of the weather at the inclement season at which they first appear, but also protects it from the excessive moisture which can encourage leaf spot.
This species has been grown in botanic gardens for some years and has occasionally been offered by nurseries but it has always been rare and only recently have there been reliable sources. In good forms it is one of the most captivating species for its engaging habit of flowering so enthusiastically so early in the season, for its subtle metalic tints and its free flowering habit. To create an attractive garden association choose from the extensive list of plants with which it grows in the wild; Cardamine trifolia, Hepatica transylvanica, Omphalodes verna and Viola odorata would also make good companions.