Iknow that snowdrops are the real precursors of spring, but in my garden, the Lenten hellebores regularly beat them into action-beating Lent, too, by more than a month. The very first of them was out well before Christmas 2012, and I’m not talking about Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose (which usually fails to open its flowers in time for the festive season), but that wonderful race we now have to call Helleborus × hybridus, which are derived from Helleborus orientalis, the true ‘Lenten rose’.
If all these names confuse, I must apologise, but then this is a confused race of plants, whose saving grace is that the hybridisers have produced for us a range of garden plants that are wonderful value on account of their flowering time, the range of flower form and colour and their ease of cultivation.
Not that growing them is totally without incident. Let’s get the problems out of the way first. The worst is ‘black death’, which can lead to the total demise of a plant. It’s rare. More common is ‘black spot’, which affects flowers and leaves and is very disfiguring. It’s a fungus disease, which can be kept in check by cutting off all the leaves of the plant at ground level in December/January. As well as reducing the incidence of the disease, this also allows the flowers to emerge untrammelled by tatty foliage, which, by this time, has done its job.
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If black spot is still a problem, spraying with a fungicide containing mancozeb can help keep it in check. I prefer the leaf-cutting technique as a means of control, and I keep a sharp eye open for those plants that are susceptible to the disease in spite of this precaution, digging them up and burning them. This may seem extreme, but plants that show the disease in one year invariably suffer from it the next, but most others remain naturally healthy. It seems more sensible to me to encourage this resistance than to be a martyr to the sprayer. Other than that, the plants are relatively trouble-free and will flower from December through until March and April.
Enthusiasts buy their plants from specialist growers and nurseries while they’re in flower this way, it’s possible to see exactly the shade and markings of the flowers and to build up a varied collection. From the deepest dusky purple-black, colours range through maroon and crimson to pink, pale green, primrose yellow and white, many of them contrastingly spotted with wine red, and there are doubles as well as singles. Varieties are appearing with flowers that are slightly upturned rather than being possessed of the more usual nodding habit, but I’ve never found their bashfulness remotely irritating.
What is irritating is the fact that, when stems are cut for the house, they refuse to remain upright and quickly wilt. We avoid this by picking off individual flowers and floating them like water lilies in a bowl-10 or 12, in different shades and markings, will rivet all eyes. They will last two or three days when cut like this, and one gets a chance to gaze in comfort at the beautifully constructed centres of the flowers.
In the garden, the plants love earth that has been enriched with well-rotted leafmould, but they’re tolerant of any half-decent, well-drained soil in dappled shade, which makes them great plants for woodland or shrubberies. Once established, they resent disturbance and will increase in size year on year-in this respect, they’re the lazy gardener’s dream.
Mulched with chipped bark (which shows them off well and prevents the flowers from being splashed by mud), they’re provided with the perfect seedbed, and a rash of seedlings will ensue in the summer after flowering. It’s tempting to leave these, but they’ll overpower their parents in time and will be of variable merit. If you have the patience, dig them up with a trowel and plant them in rows on the vegetable patch, spacing them 6in apart. That way, you can watch them grow and select the ones you want to keep.
It is a process that will take a few years, but your patience will be rewarded with a group of garden plants that I’d be more reluctant to give up than almost any other.
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