Win­ter’s most colour­ful guest

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Gardening -

Helle­bores first hit the head­lines dur­ing the 1850s when they were all the rage, then, like many plant fads, they fell out of fash­ion, and the stock, much of it de­vel­oped in Ger­many, dis­ap­peared. It took the likes of He­len Bal­lard, who in­tro­duced Euro­pean species of hy­brid ori­en­talis plants, pro­duc­ing a col­lec­tion that has yet to be bet­tered, and the per­se­ver­ance of El­iz­a­beth Strang­man at her nurs­ery at Wash­field in Kent, to bring plants up to stan­dard again, ready for the hellebore’s re­cent re­turn to favour. In the mean­time, Mike By­ford of Ha­zles Cross Farm in Stafford­shire took Bal­lard’s clear, crisp colours and un­clut­tered forms and Strang­man’s dou­bles, and re­fined them, de­vel­op­ing a new range of colours, and used his ex­pe­ri­ence as a sci­en­tist and his un­der­stand­ing of ge­net­ics to help him breed his own hy­brids: sin­gles, semi-dou­bles and dou­bles, in a range of colours from pure white to black, through pinks, reds, greens, yel­lows, peach and apri­cot to slate blue, with a wide kalei­do­scope of pat­terns in­clud­ing pi­co­tee, spot­ting, blotched, blushed, vein­ing and star cen­tred. A suf­ferer from sea­sonal af­fec­tive dis­or­der, Mike has al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated the way helle­bores lift the spir­its dur­ing win­ter’s gloom, and get gar­den­ers look­ing for­ward to the spring and bet­ter times ahead. Thirty years on, his col­lec­tion of plants has grown to be­come so com­pre­hen­sive that it cov­ers all known species, with many forms of each, and some un­seen any­where else. Five years ago, he was awarded the ac­co­lade of Na­tional Col­lec­tion Holder by Plant Her­itage (for­merly the NC­CPG). But it’s in the field of wild species helle­bores that Mike’s in­ter­ests re­ally lie. He has vis­ited north­ern Italy, the Balkans and Tur­key through to Ge­or­gia, in ar­eas where many plants are un­der threat, and seen them flow­er­ing in the wild. Their flow­ers are smaller and more sub­tle, but the plants are longer lived. “No nat­u­ral­is­tic or wild gar­den should be with­out them,” says Mike. “They sit well with ery­thro­ni­ums, anemone nemorosa, tril­li­ums, galan­thus and cy­cla­men hed­er­i­folium.” To learn what con­di­tions species helle­bores like, look to where they grow in the wild – in ar­eas where rain­fall is low with sunny win­ters and springs, and hot sum­mers, when their thick leath­ery leaves help to re­duce tran­spi­ra­tion. And sur­pris­ingly, helle­bores aren’t found grow­ing in heavy shade or deep in wood­lands, but in a wide range of habi­tats. They are happy un­der de­cid­u­ous trees, they like a lit­tle cover in sum­mer as long as they’re fac­ing the sun, but they hate to be wa­ter­logged, lov­ing good drainage, and are of­ten seen grow­ing in lime­stone cracks, with their rhi­zomes dry and their roots trav­el­ling down to wa­ter. Choose an open glade in­side a wood for your helle­bores and you’ll be re­warded with the best flow­ers. Don’t di­vide helle­bores, leave them to form big clumps and col­lect their seed. If you don’t want nat­u­ral hy­bridi­s­a­tion, dead­head af­ter flow­er­ing. Mulch, then cut back dis­eased leaves in Novem­ber, but don’t cut them all off. I love to see them on a south-fac­ing bank, where you can look up into their pretty faces, gen­tly nod­ding, un­der de­cid­u­ous trees, en­joy­ing their loamy leaf mould. Our own two na­tive species helle­bores, H. foetidus and H. viridis, do well in poor con­di­tions ex­cept wa­ter­logged soils. Their flow­ers are pure and beau­ti­ful, the fo­liage is strik­ing and their seed heads at­trac­tive. Flow­er­ing at a time when colour in the gar­den is scarce, their blooms at­tract early pollinators es­pe­cially bum­ble­bees. And if you’re look­ing for plants for a re­ally shady lo­ca­tion, con­cen­trate on gen­uine wood­land plants like tril­li­ums, epimedi­ums and dry­opteris. Ha­zles Cross Farm nurs­ery is only open by ap­point­ment (01538 752669) from Fe­bru­ary be­cause, sadly, Mike By­ford is very ill and un­able to carry on his work. His unique col­lec­tion is up for sale. He’d feel happy if some­one were to take on the man­tel of his col­lec­tion, his hy­bridi­s­a­tion, his prop­a­ga­tion of species helle­bores and the ma­jor­ity of his plants – over a thou­sand in pots. Any­one se­ri­ously able to com­mit to such a task, should email him on info@ ha­zle­scross­nurs­ What to do in the gar­den this week,

Look­ing for­ward to to spring: clock­wise from top; ‘Helle­borus Niger’; ‘Lividus’; ‘Foetidus’ and ‘To­quar­tus’ show­case the in­fi­nite va­ri­ety of a plant that lifts the spir­its in the oth­er­wise dull win­ter

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