Sylvia Clare’s Column – Hellebores, Jan/Feb 2014

Published: July 31, 2022
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Another day in the Garden – January/February 2014 Hellebores etc.

It is now a complete year cycle that I have written about my plot here on the Isle of Wight. Thank you if you have followed any of it. I write for my own enjoyment but am delighted to share these musings on gardening in this particular location. We are exceedingly lucky living uphill from a lovely little stream that once was quite a strongly flowing small river which supported several mills along its bank until the upstream waters were diverted for farming purposes and its flow became little more than a thin trickle over chalk bed and silt in high summer. But I include a photo of this benign little trickle in full flow back in December when the ‘once a small mill house' next to the ford was flooded. My heart really goes out to people affected by this appalling, albeit mild winter thus far. There is still time for it to turn icy on us but as of this Sunday morning we have had but 3-4 slightly frosty mornings and my Melianthus leaves have yet to be cut back by any frost hard enough for the job. I expect it will happen by the end of March, but if not then I may possibly get flowers for one year only. Elsewhere on the island, around the edges and away from our frost hollow, this flowers regularly but I treat it as a foliage plant only.

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The Mill Stream
1 15
Arum italicam
2 15
Beautiful fat buds ready to burst open
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Birch and dogwood barks contrast so well with native Hellebore foetidus
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Birch surronded by a clump of Hellebore foetidus
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Clear white variety

 

Our ground is still sodden but it only takes a morning of sunshine like this one and it can drain sufficiently for it to be quite pleasant and workable out there; being uphill really does have its advantages even if we have to cope with lack of water in hot dry spells, in spite of heavy mulching and continuous soil improvement.

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Blackthorn pale and danity with slight freckling
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Blackthorn speckled
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Blackthorn varieties with delicate edgings
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Close up of Argutofolium
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Dark purplish red
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Deep purple primroses planted a year ago and returning

 

This mild spell has also meant the bees have been out and about whenever it has been sufficiently sunny and still for them to fly; not good. They are often using up precious energy to fly with and foraging from very little, which is why I am an avid winter and early spring gardener, with hellebores and snowdrops in abundance as fast as I can spread them. I started collecting 12 years ago, with trips with HPS friends to Blackthorns Nurseries in Hampshire, now sadly closed. But many of my first and favourite hellebores came from them. These include several un-named varieties with unusual markings. Some of these I have split now and made several plants from, but others are left as dainty clumps slowly increasing in size year on year.
I found already growing here a few native hellebore foetidus and have spread their seedlings around everywhere, clumped around the base of silver birch trees where their dark green finger leaves and bright green bells contrast against the white crusty bark, also against dogwood stems of various forms. In the dappled winter sunshine these contrasts really seem to shine out for me and my bees adore these natives most of all. They do also provide good rain shelter with their downward hanging bells, and so for this reason I continue to spread and increase them around the garden. These plants do go off however and become rather leggy and straggly and even infested with black spots on the leaves more than other varieties so I do frequently start again with these clumps, roughly every 3-4 years. They are prolific self-seeders and I am yet to run out of replacements. Actually all hellebores seem to be good at self seeding and I have collected self sown seedlings and planted them on to create new areas of anticipation which I planted out last autumn with half a dozen hellebore seedlings and a few new corms. None of these will flower until next winter at the earliest but I have a whole year of anticipation coupled with the completion of this small woodland area which still requires a little more clearance and planting out. I have also put some aconitum varieties as taller backing planting, with foxgloves, plus pachysandra variegata to provide some not too aggressive evergreen ground cover. I still have this area to complete but the other side of this shady seating area is mostly primroses at the moment and I have yet to decide what to be the main planting on this side, ferns and hostas I think at this stage but am still uncertain.
Anyway Since starting my hellebore collection 12 years ago I have discovered the lovely argutifolius which has slightly larger apple green cup shaped flowers. These come out earlier as do the foetida's and the single orientalis, the doubles are still fat in bud and some of the more unusual colours such as the slate colours are yet to really show themselves although their presence is anticipated. They seem to come into flower with the pulmonarias so I have grouped them with Pulmonaria Opal, which is a lovely colour combination to my eye.

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Double snowdrops in clumps
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Double white with delicate freckling
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Helpers with the weeding
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Lovely clump of dark maroon
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Lovely dark maroon party dress series
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Lovely pale cream

 

I have also collected the Ellen series, both red, pink and whites and all in single and double forms. These are nearly out on the 2nd Feb but I shall stall this article to see if there are more photos to share in a week or so. The bees also really like the larger single varieties of this group, and I saw several foraging when out taking photos this morning on a single open white variety. Bees need easy access to their food and our tendency to want double flowers on everything makes life increasingly hard for our furry flying friends.

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More blackthorn pinks
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More lovely speckled pinks from blackthorn
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Native foetidus contrasting and brightening up a corner against spotted laurel
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Native primroses in clumps
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One of last years iris returning next to a young hellebore seedling flowering for the first time this year
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Pale blackthorn variety

 

The other group I have are the party dress which is a range of small frilled doubles in various colours, I have a dark red and a greenish-white variety and again these do not get into big enough clumps to easily split so I let them slowly establish into groups.

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Pink doubles in full bud about to burst
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Pink ellen range double
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Primrose yellow
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Red borders on a creamy base, another blackthorn treasure
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Slate grey cluster
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Slate grey with seed pods forming already

 

Accompanying my beloved hellebores are native primroses, and my only acknowledgement to coloured primroses beyond the white and pale yellow varieties, and because I am such a sucker for purple that I have these lovely dark velvety purple varieties I found in a local B&Q store and that have survived into a second year, I am sincerely hoping they will spread and I can split and increase their presence also. I have tired crocus of various sorts and have found them unsuccessful. I tried, having an aching back from planting 1,000 corms one autumn only to find that I had fed our local voles for the entire winter and what they missed was pecked off immediately as the flowers formed by roaming pheasants. I no longer bother with them except the occasional pot by the back door which I then plant out and may be lucky to see for a further year, then that will be it. Sometimes I am lucky and a few survive if I plant them out after wards.

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Slate greys
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Smudgy pink buds contrast against creamy white primroses in weak winter sunshine
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Tangled stems of midwinter fire
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Two honey bees making the most of a brief opportunity in a creamy white hellebore cup
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White double party dress
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Winter moonbeam

 

A week later on and in spite of the deluge we have had enough sunshine to bring the other hellebores on further, so that now more of the lovely blackthorn varieties with their variety of speckling and lovely modestly drooping faces are out, as well as some of the bruised pink doubles from the Ellen Range. Also one of my slate grey's have opened and I noticed several seedlings around its base, some of which I have left and a couple I have moved; I think a clump of this colour would be wonderful, I hope they come more or less true but they may not of course. I also noticed how much a lovely pale creamy variety with quite dainty drooping flowers is fully out now and shining almost buttery in the slanting sunlight through the trees. My snowdrops are not any special varieties and with our voles we do have competition but I am slowly increasing the number of clumps around our woodland areas and am pleased at how they are now bulking up after 12 years since the first few were planted out. I am tempted by a few precious ones each year but then think how distressing it would be if these got munched for lunch so decide to stick with nivalis single and flora plena doubles. We are forecast yet more rain this week, when will it end and allow us to really get going out there, with so much to do in all areas, and our guests start arriving in the half term breaks just coming up, but they will just have to see the garden as I do, with lots of beauty and a few blemishes but so much potential for the coming year. Gardening really is an occupation for dreamers and optimists.

Sylvia Clare

Text and photographs by Sylvia Clare, who has been an HPS member for more than 10 years.