Heavenly hellebores

Beautiful perennials that will flower even when it snows.

Among all the plants that could tempt you out on a cold wintry day, the hardy perennial hellebore (Helleborus) is most persuasive. They will flower even during appalling winter weather, creating an elegant and subtle display. Hellebores are easy to a cheery grow as they will tolerate most soils, except for light sandy ones and prefer dappled light as their colour will blanch in deep shade. Top dress with organic matter to preserve moisture and cut off any old leaves to draw the eye to the flowers.
Hellebores improve with age and, like most of us, don’t like to be disturbed. Divide hellebores after flowering in early spring or late summer and plant in autumn or winter. Feed in spring after flowering to ensure a healthy display for the following year. Hellebores make good ground cover all year, with neat, mostly evergreen clumps. In winter, the leaves fall apart and shoots and flower heads emerge. There are two types of hellebores: acaulescent and caulescent. Acaulescent hellebores have no flowering stem (floral bracts, leaves and flowers all on one stem), but sepals that look like flowers and bracts that look like serrated leaves on one stem.
The true leaves are on another stalk, and they have fleshy roots. This group includes niger and orientalis. Caulescent species have a flowering stem and thin, wispy roots. This group includes Helleborus argutifolius, lividus and foetidus.
Helleborus niger – niger refers to its black roots – is also known as Christmas rose, although it usually flowers after Christmas. It has large, flattish white flowers on short stems and deep evergreen leathery leaves standing in 30cm clumps. Several forms exist, some with a pink tinge to their sepals. The cultivar ‘Potter’s Wheel’ is one of the finest.
Helleborus orientalis, also known as Lenten rose, has flowers ranging from greenish-white, pink and dusky plum to near black on 45cm stems. They are easier to grow than H. niger and thrive in cool conditions in semi shade. Plant them with snowdrops and Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ for a stunning show, or grow in large drifts beneath deciduous trees with early daffodils for a splash of colour. The flowers will last well into April. The compact Helleborus x sternii plants of the Blackthorn group are up to 60cm high. The dark crimson stems carry pale green flowers tinged with pink. The foliage is silvery grey and marbled. They enjoy full sun, are hardy in a well-drained, sheltered site, and well-suited to being grown in a container.
Helleborus argutifolius is the tallest and most striking hellebore. It is also known as Helleborus corsicus after Corsica, the island it originates from.
The evergreen leaves are grey/green and are held high on sturdy, arching stems. lts subtle apple-green flowers have pretty yellow anthers and are very long-lasting. It has a two-year cycle, producing only foliage in its first year, with flowers in the second spring. It seeds quite freely and cheers up a shady corner.
Helleborus argutifolius ‘Pacific Frost’ has white-flecked variegatedleaves. It’s smaller than its parent plant, but has the same cup-shaped flowers.
Helleborus foetidus (stinking hellebore) is a good evergreen ground cover and the maroon-edged, lime-green bells on fan-shaped clumps of foliage lift the spirits on winter days look striking when planted in groups. However, it has an unpleasant scent and can cause skin irritation. Helleborus viridis (green hellebore) is deciduous with green, nodding, saucer-shaped flowers that appear from late winter to early spring. Its dark green leaves have a leathery texture and can grow up to a foot long. H. viridis prefers dappled shade and a rich, organic, moist soil.

For stunning hellebores visit Ashwood Nurseries in January and February. Ashwood Nurseries, Ashwood Lower Lane, Kingswinford, West Midlands. Tel: 01384 401996.

Things to do in January

Plant trees, shrubs and roses (as long as the ground isn’t frozen)
Cut back roses a little to prevent them being buffeted by wind, but don’t prune yet
Mulch shrubs, roses and hedges with farmyard manure. Aiso, put it over the crowns of dormant perennials
In warmer areas, sow broad beans
Repair fences and sheds and give them a coat of wood preservative
Knock snow off branches if they are bending under the weight

Kim’s choice

Create your own wildflower meadow with mini meadow mixture from RK Alliston (?8.50 + p&p, 020 7751 0077). Simply scatter the seed and, later in the year, enjoy your own pretty wildlife habitat that attracts butterflies and bees.

What’s in bloom

Snowdrop Galanthus elwesii (above) is a reliable, early flowering bulb
Winter heather – Erica carnea ‘Springwood Pink’ flowers prolifically in winter.
Bergenia ‘Abendglut’ has beautiful, bronze foliage and pink flowers borne on red sterns.

Garden of the month

Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Cory Lodge, Bateman Street, Cambridge CB21JF
(01223 336265). Forty acres of trees, herbaceous borders and ecology, rock and water gardens make this an interesting garden to visit. Its extensive glasshouses are an ideal excursion tor cold, January days, as is its winter garden with colourful dogwood stems and conifers.

Kim knows her onions…

Shallots (which are similar to onions) are traditionally planted around the shortest day of the year (21 December), ready to be harvested on the longest day (21 June). With Christmas and the mad rush leading up to it, I normally wait until early January and choose a day when the soil is not frozen. Shallots like a fertile, well-drained soil and are planted by simply pushing them into the soil so that just the tip sticks out. Plant them 15 cm apart in rows 25 – 20 cm apart.
They are ready to harvest in June once the foliage starts to shrivel. Lift them with a fork, shake off any excess soil and leave them to dry in a sunny place for a few days. You can then either tie them into a rope by plaiting the dry stems together or hang them in a net bag and store in a cool, frost-free place.

Prima solution

Q: Most of the leaves of my spider plant have turned yellow and some have even turned brown. What’s wrong with it?
A: Leaves turning yellow or brown is probably a sign of overwatering – your spider plant (and other houseplants in general) needs less water in winter. Cut off any brown leaves and reduce the amount of water you give it – it should thrive.