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Outstanding hellebores deserve wider audience

IT IS strange that hellebores are not much better known and much more widely grown. This plant begins to flower in early spring in a normal year or in winter if the weather is mild as it was this year. It is still going strong and will be for another two months.

That a flower so large, well-coloured, prolific and long-flowering should be largely ignored is nothing short of amazing, flowering at a time of year when there are so few flowers. It is by no means rare, but there are still thousands of gardens that would benefit from its outstanding charm.

Perhaps it is the name hellebore that is not appealing. But that is the name that it has. There is a species with the name Christmas rose that flowers early but it is not as reliable as the Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis, which flowers a bit later.

This species, originally from the eastern end of the Mediterranean region, is reliable, hardy, and easy to grow. It has been used for breeding with other species to give more highly coloured flowers that range from deep slate grey, plum, leaden blue to green, yellow, white and soft pink.

The hellebores are related to clematis and carry the beauty of the plants in that family and the penchant of many to flower early. The large petals are really sepals which in most flowers are green, leaf-like structures that form the outside cover of the flower bud. Hellebore has no petals as such but has evolved its sepals to be colourful and to play the role of petals.

These flower structures have certain advantages over petals, being much more robust and long-lasting. When each flower has been pollinated, the sepals do not fall away, as petals do, but remain there, just changing colour to shades of green and plum-red and providing great contrast and background for the flowers that are still opening. This is the reason that the display is so long-lasting.

Hellebores normally open their flowers before any spring bulb, including snowdrops, but they look great with spring bulbs nearby. The combination of snowdrops, crocus, daffodils and even tulips with hellebores is delightful and the hellebores last the full flowering period of all those kinds of spring bulbs.

Long-flowering, the plants are also very long-lived, surviving for many decades, and often self-sowing where the conditions are right.

The only blot is a dark leaf-spot disease and cutting away foliage in autumn helps to reduce the carry-over to flowering time. Now is a good time to plant!

Sunday Independent