Helleborus torquatus
Helleborus torquatus Archer-Hind

Of all the plants in this captivating genus, this species probably causes more controversy than any other. At its best it is a delightful plant and although sometimes no more than a curiosity, it is always interesting. This interest derives partly from disputes about the place of the plant amongst the other Balkan species, and in particular whether it deserves to be a species at all. The history of the plants now referred to this species is described in detail by Brian Mathew in his book and before going any further this history must be summarised.

A plant was grown under the name of H. torquatus in Berlin in the middle of the nineteenth century and about the same time was grown at the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge. From here a plant was rescued from destruction during alterations by Thomas Archer-Hind who happened to be visiting at the time. This plant, purple inside and out with a white collar round the neck (torquatus means adorned with a collar), was described in the 8 March and 13 December issues of The Garden in 1884 and given the name H. torquatus.

A plant of the Archer-Hind stock was grown by Sir Frederick Stern at Highdown and seen by Brian Mathew in the 1960s, it is not clear whether this was a division or a seedling. A plant collected by Walter Ingwersen and growing at his nursery near Gravetye in Sussex was seen by Brian Mathew a few years earlier. The Ingwersen plant was one of three collected by Walter Ingwersen and Dr Richard Seligman from a population on Mt Kopaonik in Serbia in 1929. E. B. Anderson grew all three and they still grow at Washfield Nursery.

It is divisions of these plants from Mt Kopaonik which to gardeners, if not botanists, make up the so called 'classic' H. torquatus. All have flowers of a wonderful combination of deep violet-purple with a grape-like bloom outside and intense green inside. The Archer-Hind plant was purple both inside and out. Walter Ingwersen's plant was very similar to 'Pluto' with a slight purple flush within while the other two plants are a brighter green inside (see plate 000).

It is these plants which were used to produce the first very dark flowered hybrids with H. orientalis. The plants sold by The Plantsmen as "H. x torquatus" derive from the Ingwersen plant. Although described as self sterile they were used as the parent of a number of clones and hybrid strains.

During field work in Yugoslavia Brian Mathew examined a number of populations akin to these plants and concluded that all were forms of one very variable species, so he formally confirmed the name H. torquatus following the Thomas Archer-Hind account of March 1884.


This is a truly herbaceous plant with pedately divided foliage divided into anything from a dozen to 80 segments, the southern colonies are more constant. The leaves are hairy when young, especialy in the south, when mature they are more or less circular in shape, about 15in (38cm) across and the central leaflets are usually divided. The leaflets vary in shape from lance-shaped or almost linear in the northern forms to broader and chunkier in the southern. In some plants the young foliage may be strongly red-purple tinted.

Plants may be 9-12in (23-30cm) in flower reaching 16in (40cm) in height in full leaf with from three to 11 flowers per stem. In two contrasting cultivated forms that we examined one had 11/2in (4cm) flowers with dark purple backs, green at the base, which were green inside though veined and rimmed in purple. The other had 11/4in (3cm) flowers with green backs, purple tinted at the edge and with a few faint purple veins inside. Neither was scented. Flowers also come in a wide variety of other shades (see below) including, on the outside, various purples from deep almost black shades to greyish blue as well as green shades. The flowers are usually green inside and sometimes prettily veined in purple. The form which is purple outside, sea green inside and veined in purple is especially attractive, though the flowers are small.

The purple flowers of this species are supposed to be its main distinguishing feature but this is by no means a constant factor. Apart from their differing areas of distribution, the pedate foliage of H. torquatus and its smaller flowers are used to separate it from H. purpurascens whose foliage tends to be palmate and rounded. It differs from H. atrorubens in its hairy young foliage and divided central leaflets, in H. atrorubens the young leaves are smooth and the central leaflet undivided. The differences in foliage seem the most reliable distinguishing features. As to distinctions between H. torquatus and H. multifidus, areas of distribution and flower colour are the criteria given.

This is one of only three species so far which has yielded double flowered plants in the wild. In 1971 Elizabeth Strangman found two plants, subsequently named 'Dido' and 'Aeneas' in Montenegro. Just to emphasise the confusion surrounding this plant, the doubles from Montenegro were originally identified by Kew as H. purpurascens and these double forms are still sometimes found in gardens under this name.

Natural distribution and habitat

Helleborus torquatus is restricted to Yugoslavia where it grows wild in Bosnia Hercegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and western Serbia but is absent from coastal areas. It is usually found in deciduous woods where the shade is not too dense or at their fringes as well as in scrubby areas.

In Bosnia it is usually found in scrub and thin turf over limestone rock where it grows with Buglossoiodes purpurocaerulea, Cytisus demissus and Globularia cordifolia and at higher altitudes with Anemone nemerosa and Primula vulgaris.

To the south in Montenegro it grows in scrub or on the edge of thin woodland and generally on deeper soils than those in the north. Here the flowers may be brown, deep purple, smoky or almost green. The doubles were found in this area growing with Corydalis solida, Crocus vernus, Erythronium dens-canis, Hepatica nobilis, Isopyron thalictroides, Primula vulgaris, Pulmonaria officinalis, Scilla bifolia and Viola odorata.

South west of Kolasin, at the top of the Moraca Gorge, Alan Leslie and Joe Sharman found a colony with both green and purple flowered plants. They were growing in bracken with the remains of a woodland flora including Acanthus hungaricus, colchicums, erythroniums, Gentiana cruciata, Paradisea liliastrum and potentillas.

Around Lake Plav they found a particularly wide range of colour forms from a rather yellow green through a large number of different smoky blues and pinky browns to dark blue-purple outside and green inside.

The problem of Helleborus torquatus

At least some of the confusion relating to this species can be eliminated by the realisation that there are two distinct groups of forms, the southern and the northern; Elizabeth Strangman has examined plants in both areas and noted significant differences.

In the north the Bosnian colonies appear to be indistinguishable from H. multifidus except in their flower colour, showing a natural range from green through brown to violet-purple as distinct from classical green-flowered colonies of H. multifidus to be found in parallel valleys 15 miles (25km) to the west. The most desirable plants from a gardener's point of view are undoubtedly those whose flowers are dark violet-purple outside and inside are blue-green, with or without violet-purple stripes.

To get a true picture of the colonies in this area it is important to realise that these especially attractive plants are in the minority in naturally mixed colonies. The colours of the flowers grade through
1) green inside and out;
2) green with faint brown shading on the back and green inside;
3) brown on the back and green with brown stripes within;
4) purple on backs and blue-green inside with or without purple stripes;
5) purple inside and out.

In addition, the leaves of plants in these Bosnian colonies are generally smaller, more divided and with narrower leaflets and some are hairy on the backs while young, some not. The flowers are smaller, conical and less widely flared than those in colonies further south - much more like H. multifidus.

It is interesting to note that Archer-Hind grew a plant from this area which he knew as H. intermedius. He described it as follows: 'Intermediate or connecting link between the purples and the greens; lax irregular flowers, dull purple outside, green within, not cupped like cupreus (= H. atrorubens), but approaching dumetorum... both in flower and foliage, unlike any other purple.'

In the Montenegran colonies further south the colour range is slightly different in that there are more intermediate shades of smoky blue-violet and smoky pink violet between the greens, browns and deep violet-purples. The green inside the flowers is a richer, more intense green and only seldom has darker stripes. It is from these southern colonies that plants of classic colouring have been selected. Again it is important to remember that from many hundreds of more humdrum plants, probably only one small piece was collected from one clump chosen for its outstanding colour and flower shape and when seen in cultivation this can clearly be misleading. The leaves are more variable in these southern colonies and quite often less finely divided.

Mount Kopaonik, where Ingwersen and Seligman collected their plants, is in this area and their plants were purple outside and green inside. The plants I flowered from raised from seed collected from this site proved to be completely green.

Elizabeth Strangman found plants in Montenegro which were
1) entirely green;
2) green with a picotee of brown;
3) brown outside and green inside;
4) pale dove grey-blue or dove grey and pinky brown outside and green inside grading into
5) dark bluey purple outside and green inside. None were dark both outside and in.

It is clear that much more field work needs to be undertaken before the problem of H. torquatus can be resolved and it may prove more practical to treat these two groups as different subspecies of H. multifidus or to gather them into one subspecies which would naturally be called H. multifidus subsp. serbicus. This was the name coined for these plants in 1961 and taken up by Brian Mathew in his AGS article of March 1967; it is perhaps more appropriate for a number of reasons. Firstly, the plants show so much variation, not only between colonies but within individual populations. Secondly, only one pure colony of plants with flowers which are all dark is so far reputed to have been found. Thirdly, most populations seem to grade into what would otherwise be called H. multifidus. In the space of 15 miles (25km) plants vary from purple inside and out to green inside and out. It is interesting to note that in his AGS article, under H. multifidus subsp. serbicus Brian writes 'it no doubt occurs in mixed colonies with the type with intermediate colours also.'

In spite of all these reservations and until there has been a full analysis of recent field work with new field work specifically intended to resolve this problem, we continue to use the name H. torquatus on the understanding that it is indeed a very variable plant.


This is not a difficult plant to grow although clones which have been repeatedly divided may be weak. It prefers a leafy soil or one improved with plenty of other organic matter and partial shade suits it best although the northern form in particular will thrive in full sun if not short of moisture. Generally H. torquatus will tolerate more sun than most species.

On the rare occasions when wild collected seed is available it should yield plants showing the natural range of variation. Hand pollinated and hooded plants, uncontaminated by foreign pollen, will usually yield progeny which are more even and closer to the parent plant but they will not always be identical. Unfortunately individual plants are often self-sterile so two plants, carefully cross-pollinated, may be required to obtain seed with certainty.

In gardens

The Archer-Hind plant does not seem to have been widely distributed although plants from the Ingwersen and Seligman collection were divided and distributed, eventually becoming weakened by repeated division. A number of hybrids of H. torquatus were introduced by The Plantsmen and one, 'Pluto', was said by Eric Smith to have been very similar to the original Ingwersen plant of H. torquatus, although not as similar as its very slow growing sister 'Neptune'.

Most gardeners tend to think of this plant as purple on the outside and green on the inside and this is generally what you get on the rare occasions when it is available from nurseries.

Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis' creates a fine setting for H. torquatus and other more intimate companions would be pale blue Anemone nemerosa such as 'Blue Queen, Cardamine pentaphyllos, double forms of Galanthus nivalis or perhaps 'Scharlockii', Hepatica nobilis, Narcissus 'W.P. Milner', Primula vulgaris var. sibthorpii, Primula 'Wanda', Scilla bifolia and Trillium luteum.

Cultivated forms

These originate either as collections from the wild, or as hybrids or seedlings without additional blood from other species.

'Aeneas' A double flowered plant 12-14in (25-30cm) high with narrow irregularly toothed bracts. There are five or six fully double flowers per stem, each 11/2in (4cm) across, with 15-17 petals in each flower, becoming narrower towards the centre, all the nectaries having become like petalds. The buds are rich shades of emerald green and coppery brown, prettily veined. Once open, the backs of the outer petals are green with brown veins and brown shading towards the base. There is less brown on the backs of the petals nearer the centre while the central petals are red tipped and with a slightly dark haze at the edge. The insides of the petals are apple green with translucent veining. The young foliage is green.

This is one of a pair of doubles Elizabeth Strangman found in Montenegro, the other was ‘Dido’.

BM 5279 The original plant was collected by Brian Mathew in 1969 from the roadside on the Pec to Titograd road, shortly before the Czakor Pass. It has small flowers which are sloe-black outside and sea green within. Seedlings derived from selfing this plant have occasionally been available but not all the offspring repeat this impressive colouring.

'Dido' Like 'Aeneas' this is a double found in the wild in Montenegro. 'Dido' is slightly shorter than 'Aeneas' at 10-12n (25-30cm) and with rather arching growth. The bracts are purple, evenly toothed and divided into three or four on each side, with translucent veins. The flowers are almost 2in across (4.5cm), fully double with a remarkably consistent 19 petals on established plants and no nectaries. The outside of the petals range from brown or purple-brown speckled, or with a full brown sheen and a green edge. The green within is a slightly sharper shade, the young foliage is red-brown. See page 000.

'Little Stripey' Selected by Elizabeth Strangman from wild H. torquatus in Bosnia in 1971 and typical of the dark flowered plants to be found in this area - deep violet-purple on the backs of the petals, pale blue-green inside with small violet-purple stripes. The Bosnian winter is very cold and long, typical of the Continental rather than the Adriatic climate, and 'Little Stripey' is always the last of the species to flower at Washfield. It has finely cut bracts and leaves and grows to 4-10in (10-25cm) tall in flower.

This is a charming plant but is unfortunately self sterile. It produces a percentage of exciting seedlings from open pollination, all of which have the finely divided, species-type deciduous leaves.

'Nero' Selected by Roger Poulett from seedlings derived from a plant labelled H. torquatus at the botanic garden at Munich. The flowers are large, sloe-black and steel sheened. Contrasting cream stamens fall to a reveal a green eye and the fertile pods are black and inflated. Seedlings of this plant have also been distributed, my plant had nodding flowers with shining, deep reddish purple and noticeably narrow petals but the flowers seem too large to be pure H. torquatus and probably have hybrid blood.

'Paul Voelcker' A lime green flowered double reaching 6-10in (15-25cm) in flower, 10-12in (25-30cm) in leaf. The foliage, which does not develop until after flowering, is finely divided and rich crimson in colour when young. A seedling from 'Dido' raised by Ruth Voelcker of West Meon in Hampshire and introduced by Robin White of Blackthorn Nurseries in 1992. Named for her husband.

'Ruth Voelcker'
Similar to 'Paul Voelcker', though rather smaller, 4-8in (10-20cm) in flower and 8-10in (20-25cm) in leaf. The double flowers are lime green and each petal has a fine red-brown rim and the bronze-tinted young foliage develops after flowering. A seedling from 'Dido', and a sister to 'Paul Voelcker', raised by Ruth Voelcker of West Meon in Hampshire and introduced by Robin White of Blackthorn Nurseries in 1992.

Seed Strains

'Montenegran Doubles' Plants with double flowers, all of which are descendants of 'Dido' and 'Aeneas', in the typical colour range of H. torquatus. Raised by Washfield Nursery in the late 1980s.

'Torquatus Hybrids'
A range of seedlings raised by Eric Smith from crossing the self-sterile H. x torquatus with H. orientalis subsp. abchasicus. A very distinct group with more finely cut foliage and a dwarfer, earlier flowering habit than H. orientalis types. Clusters of outward facing, rounded flowers in pinkish purple shades, generally with pale interiors, usually speckled to some extent, contrasting markedly with the deeper purple suffusions on the outside. Both these and 'Pluto' are deciduous and prefer a better drained situation. Introduced by The Plantsmen in 1971.

'Torquatus Hybrids' A very variable group of hybrids raised by Robin White and produced by hand crossing between 'Pluto', a dove grey, a dark flowered plant, and a small form which he previously knew as H. multifidus subsp. serbicus. The resultant flowers come in various smokey pink and purple shades, some with green or paler insides and either green or purple nectaries. Introduced by Blackthorn Nurseries in 1992.

'Wolverton Hybrids' Green, primrose or green flushed purple fully double flowers on short stems. The result of inter-breeding 'Dido', 'Paul Voelcker' and 'Ruth Voelcker'. May be damaged by frost and also easily spoiled by splashing so plant where tree drip can be avoided. Raised by Robin White of Blackthorn Nurseries and introduced in 1992.

All words ©Graham Rice or © Graham Rice/Elizabeth Strangman 1993-2002. All pictures ©Graham Rice/gardenphotos.com unless otherwise stated. All Rights Reserved.