is nothing better on a bleak January day than to wander into
the garden and find a splash of colour in the border.
Anything that flowers at this time of year is a boost for
flagging winter spirits, especially if that plant also has
attractive leaves that carpet the ground with fresh, sometimes
evergreen foliage. If flowering continues into February or
later and there is plenty of pollen for early insects like
honeybees or queen bumblebees, we are talking about the
perfect winter-flowering plant. In my garden only one group
of plants really fulfils all these functions – the wonderful
Although there is a wide range of exotic hellebores available
in nurseries, we have two wild species in Britain perfectly
suited to garden cultivation. They are not often seen in the
countryside - a woodland slope under beech trees is the usual
place to see the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) and
the green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) but they are also
sometimes found in damp valleys, as long as there is some
shade. In their natural habitat they prefer chalk or
limestone soils but in cultivation seem able to cope with most
conditions, including light sand or heavy clay. Both have
very dark green glossy leaves, pretty pale green flowers but a
rather unpleasant scent, especially if the leaves are rubbed.
plants were grown in cottage gardens in the past for medicinal
use. They are poisonous, and should be treated with respect
for this reason, but their properties made them useful tools
in the fight against intestinal worms in animals and
children. It was not always easy to get the dosage just
right, and there are reported cases of fatalities. Whenever
you work with these plants ensure that gloves are worn and
hands are well washed afterwards.
hellebore is very much a woodland plant, perfect for a dark
corner under shrubs, a tree or a hedge where its new bright
green leaves, which appear in January and February, brighten
up the dullest spot. The pale green flowers appear in loose,
drooping clusters above the foliage and persist well into the
spring when the seed pods swell, providing added interest.
Stinking hellebore, in spite of its unfortunate name, is a
perfect winter plant, sometimes opening its green flowers
which are tipped with maroon as early as December. The
clusters are held above the foliage in magnificent sprays and
each individual flower is up to an inch across. They persist
for months and like the green hellebore are followed by
attractive seed pods. Both species have spreading hand-shaped
evergreen leaves, which make great ground cover and reach a
height of about 50cms. Both thrive in heavy shade, but
stinking hellebore (or bear’s foot as it is sometimes known),
is perfectly at home in some sun too, so could be tried in
almost any garden situation.
well as our attractive natives with their unusual green
flowers, many people grow the oriental hellebores, Helleborus
orientalis. One of the joys of this group of plants is the
colour variation that can be found amongst the different
varieties. A couple of plants in my garden, one white
flowered and the other dark maroon, have produced a nursery of
youngsters in many shades between, some of them beautifully
spotted, and all producing copious pollen for early bees.
These are plants best left to their own devices, as they
slowly form attractive clumps over time if undisturbed, and
will seed well too.
Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, also flowers this month.
Sadly this is a less easy plant to establish, but worth
perseverance. In my previous garden it never coped with the light
sandy soil in spite of copious amounts of old manure and leaf
mould, as it prefers a heavy soil that never dries out
completely. The cup shaped nodding flowers are white,
sometimes suffused with rose pink on the backs of the petals.
The bright golden stamens are held well above the petals and
are avidly visited by early bees for their pollen. Again the
dark green divided leaves are evergreen.
are several other hellebore species available to gardeners.
One of the best performers is Helleborus corsicus (now H.
argutifolius) – a perfect winter-flowering plant. In this
species the leaves are prickly and form a clump up to 70cms
high. Mine thrive in the shade of a large beech tree where
the grey green leaves contrast well with foliage of wood rush
and pendulous sedge, making a lovely green corner throughout
the winter. The bright green flowers and the insects they
attract are almost an added bonus.
the hellebores can be grown from seed, but are slow
germinators. Like several other members of their family (Ranunculaceae
– the buttercups and Clematis) they require a good cold period
before dormancy is broken. With care this can be achieved by
putting seeds into the freezer for few weeks, but it is much
easier to allow nature to do the work for you. Seeds should
be collected as soon as they are ripe (May or June) and sown
into pots or trays of peat free compost and covered lightly
with grit. Leave the pots in a sheltered place outside until
the following spring when germination will occur and the large
glossy leaved seedlings can be pricked out into individual
pots. Alternatively, if you already grow these plants, they
will generally self seed well for you, so simply pot up the
bright green seedlings you find beneath the parent plants.
Keep the pots in a shady place until the summer months, when
the young plants can be put in their permanent positions.
Mulch them well, and water if necessary and they should flower
the following spring. All the hellebores are perfectly suited
to an organic garden as they have no persistent pests and need
only an organic mulch once a year to keep them entirely
happy. Occasionally removing the odd dead leaf is really the
only other maintenance they require.
can be a trying time in the garden for wildlife, when
conditions are harsh and food is scarce. We may all feed the
birds, but our insects too need some thought at this time.
Growing a variety of good nectar and pollen producing plants
which flower over a wide time period (from early bulbs to late
perennials) will ensure that early bees and butterflies can find
food when they need it. Add to your border any plant which
flowers in winter and has nectar or pollen, and it could be a
lifeline for insects in January and February.
For many gardeners, there is a feel of spring in the air as
soon as the winter solstice has passed, if we take the time to
look for it. The leaves of bulbs are emerging through frosted
earth, great tits could be checking out nest boxes for early
occupation, and there may be the unexpected drone of a queen
bumblebee out of her winter nest. But for me there is nothing
like the stunning green flowers of the wild hellebores, or the
speckled petals of their oriental cousins to lift the spirits
and give us and our wildlife a glimpse of the good things to