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  • Sue

A happy afternoon among the hellebores

I have finally got back into the garden and spent yesterday afternoon clearing out a border which surrounds two large trees - a very old, multi-stemmed fig and just about the biggest walnut tree I have ever seen. Over the last 9 years I have been developing a woodland bed here and it has its challenges. It is very dry in the summer, so occasionally I have to water parts of it (some hydrangeas, which are rather impractical in this setting, but I love them). The ground beneath the trees was previously thick with brambles and general rubbish, so it took a lot of clearing and - as the ultimate challenge - walnut trees are to an extent allelopathic. This means that they produce a chemical which inhibits some other plants growing in the immediate vicinity (It is called hydrojuglone). The trees are believed to do this to inhibit competition and it can affect what you can grow beneath them.

One of my most successful plants in this bed is the Lenten hellebore - known as Helleborus orientalis. These have not only grown happily here, but they have set seed with great vigour and I now have dozens of them. As I worked in the bed yesterday I cut off the old leathery leaves from last year and could see that this year's flowers are already pushing through. Because I allow them to cross pollenate at will and leave all the seed heads on the plant until seeds have been dispersed naturally, I never know what a new plant will turn out like until it flowers - by which time it is probably a couple of years old. But they are always good to look at and good value too because they are either attractive as flowers, have architectural seed heads or act as useful ground cover all year round.

The true beauty of the flowers is often hidden and you need to lift up the flower head to see the extraordinary markings on the inner surface of the petals.

This got me to think about the Hellebore family generally and I strongly urge anyone who is planting a garden to add a clump or two of at least one species somewhere. In December we had beautiful Christmas roses (Helleborus niger) which look great in pots with other winter interest plants. We now have the cheerful lime green flowers of foetid hellebores (so-called because their leaves smell unpleasant when crushed). These grow well in shade or sun and are tolerant of dry conditions. I have a less common Helleborus Ericsmithii which looks like a combination of the Christmas rose and the Lenten hellebore. I do not have Helleborus argutifolus, which is the Corsican Hellebore - as the name suggests, it is another one to add to my shopping list of plants which are content in dry conditions.

Hellebores should be divided and transplanted in the autumn, but spring is the ideal time to move seedlings away from the parent clump and to a site where they can grow without competition. Just make sure that you prepare the new site well and that you move the plant with plenty of earth around its root ball.

These hellebores were seedlings which I transplanted from elsewhere - and they have set seed themselves, creating another generation of plants.

At this time of year - as I can see just what the flowers of my baby plants look like - I can begin to choose who is worth keeping and whereabouts in the garden they should go. Next month, providing the weather is clement, I will get to work extending, still further, my hellebore collection.

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