Hellebores - beautiful flowers that dispel winter's gloom

PUBLISHED: 15:52 25 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:57 20 February 2013

Hellebores - beautiful flowers that dispel winter's gloom

Hellebores - beautiful flowers that dispel winter's gloom

Scientist Mike Byford explores the magic of beautiful flowers that dispel winter's gloom<br/>WORDS AND IMAGES BY MIKE BYFORD

In the darkest gloomy depths of midwinter when most gardeners retreat indoors to gaze longingly at seed catalogues, there is a plant that brings a light to the darkness and sheds a little magic all of its own.

The hellebore genus, a group of plants belonging to the buttercup family, is probably best known as the Lenten rose. A pity, as it flowers before Lent and isnt related to a rose but they do flower here in the UK from December through to late April and provide a glowing welcome to all gardeners who venture out.

I first became aware of the hellebore some 30 years ago when they were not popular, having disappeared like many Victorian breeding programmes into obscurity after the Second World War. Suffering from winter depression or SAD, I had gone out for a walk one January to a National Trust house and hidden in a walled garden was a clump of flowers that lit up the grey drizzle with white and pink splashes of colour. I asked a gardener what they were and he said Lenten roses.

I researched what I could in those pre-web days and found that Elizabeth Strangman and Helen Ballard were reviving the breeding of them and producing a range of colours. That was it: I was hooked and drove hundreds of miles and spent even more hundreds of pounds buying the few forms available then.

Over the years it grew into a collection of garden hybrids and I also began breeding my own new hybrids of which there are now over 500. Then as a scientist I became interested in the wild species from which the German and British Victorian nurserymen had selected and crossed many times over to produce the fashion plants of the day which were called (incorrectly) helleborus orientalis hybrids.

I have travelled across Europe studying them and built up a collection of all known species. This ever-growing collection of plants was accepted for National Collection Status by Plant Heritage and opened to the public during February and March each year.

Wild hellebores are found across Europe and centre around the Adriatic with large groups of species in Italy and the Balkans. They are a very old group of plants which go back way beyond 25 million years. They have survived several ice ages and recolonised Europe from their inter-ice age retreats.

The most beautiful flowered species are mainly from Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Montenegro. The most eye-catching species are helleborus atrorubens, croaticus and torquatus and they along with the true wild helleborus orientalis have provided most of the breeding materials from which our modern hybrids have been developed.

In the wild they grow from sea level up to 3000 feet, from the coastal plains of Greece right up into the mountains of Montenegro. They survive summer droughts with intense UV levels and temperatures of 30 C or more and in winter live under blankets of snow with night time temperature of 30 C. With a couple of exceptions they are truly hardy in the UK.

One of the myths about hellebores is that they are shade-loving moisture loving plants best grown in cool damp shady areas. Nothing could be further from the truth: they thrive in full winter sunshine and tolerate summer dryness. In the wild they often have some dappled shade in the summer from grasses and deciduous scrub. They are shade tolerant and cope with quite moist, free draining soils but it is not their ideal. Plants grown in excessive shade produce abundant huge leaves but fewer flowers.

The ideal is for full sun in the winter early spring months and a little dappled shade during summer with a deep moisture retentive but well-drained soil. Hellebore roots can penetrate down a couple of feet to find moisture in the sub-soil. A waterlogged cold airless soil will kill them. The summer shade of our native oak or ash is fine. If your soil is too wet, growing them in raised beds or on sloping ground is a great alternative - it also helps you see their prolific flowers.

Cheshire has a pretty good climate for hellebore growers and I have seen many fine examples in gardens across the county including Stockport, Macclesfield and Alsager.

Back to their magic, in the Middle Ages they were used medicinally despite their parts being toxic if ingested in any quantity and they are described in several herbals. One test was to put a cut flower of a helleborus niger into a bowl of water for every day of Christmas and the weather for the year ahead was predicted from which flowers opened longest. But nowadays the magic is seeing their flowers glowing out from the winters gloom in the many colours and forms we have available.

Modern hybrids are available as single, double and semi-double (anemone centred) forms and an enormous range of colours, flower shapes and patterns. These are a few from the collection to give a flavour of what is available for the garden. While their flowers may be a little smaller, most of the species make delightful plants for any naturalistic garden.

My favourite form is the semi-double with its inner ruffled collar of petals being set off by the surrounding ring of larger petals. The inner petals can have a different colour or more intense pattern than the outer thereby adding to their appeal.

These and many others are to be found in the National Collection just across the border in Staffordshire Moorlands. We have received visitors from Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The most travelled visitor was from Hungary! For more details visit www.hazlescrossfarmnursery.co.uk

The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Cheshire Life

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