Heaven's a hellebore; The long winter days are forgotten when this handsome and hardy perennial has its deserved moment in the sun.
IT'S the start of a new year and that means a new gardening calendar as we look around eagerly to see what will start emerging from the ground.
I've already spotted some daffodils starting to poke their way through and snowdrops usually start to flower by the beginning of February.
But for me, one highlight of the season is that hellebores finally have their moment in the (wintry) sun.
In many ways, they are plants which are beloved of most gardeners due to their special values - namely being hardy, mostly evergreen and having handsome foliage. They do well in the shade and bring some much-wanted blossoms into the darkest days of the year.
Helleborus niger - the Christmas rose - is usually the first of the hellebores to come into bloom. Its common moniker is confusing as it is neither a member of the rose family and is rarely in bloom at Christmas time - though you can get forced varieties to perform early.
It's actually a member of the buttercup family, is poisonous, and you're best wearing gloves with all hellebores as the sap can be a skin irritant.
Its flowers look a bit like a wild rose - white or sometimes faintly blushed pink bowl-shaped flowers with yellow stamens.
Unlike most hellebores, which have shy nodding flowers that hide their beauty, this species tends to hold its flowers more upright.
Plant them near the house where you will be able to admire them from indoors without having to venture out in the bad weather.
The Lenten rose Helleborus orientalis starts to flower later as its name suggests, and many hybrid varieties have been bred from this, resulting in a selection of petal colours and shapes.
can The palette now ranges from cream, green, apricot, pink and red to some very dark purples, which can be very striking. Look out for speckled varieties as well.
I think you're best buying these plants when they are in flower so you know exactly what you're getting. They hold on to their flowers for a remarkably long period so, in this sense, they are great-value plants.
So what conditions do they like most? Rich soil that retains moisture is best so improve the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. While they're a great option for a shady garden, you can still plant them in sunnier open positions providing this doesn't cause the soil to dry out. They will flower more freely in sunnier spots. Ideally they should be sheltered from cold drying winds as well.
They'll look gorgeous when combined with other late winter/ early spring flowers such as primulas, pulmonarias and bergenias, along with some spring bulbs like snowdrops, chionodoxa and crocuses.
You need to give them a good feed in autumn and spring and they do require maintenance to look their best - this consists of removing dead foliage to enhance their appearance and give a better display of the flowers.
If you notice black or brown spots on the leaves this can be Hellebore leaf spot and this foliage should be removed and destroyed. You can use organic or chemical fungicides to help control this.
However, occasionally the news is worse and your plant has a virus that goes by the lurid name of Hellebore black death. Complete removal of the entire plant and disposal is the only course of action in this event.
They're not too difficult to germinate from seed - collect and sow when fresh, which will be when it ripens in early summer.
If you have a few varieties in your garden, you can let nature take its course and as the plants intermix you may get your very own unique hybrid hellebore.
HELLEBORUs niger flowers can also have a delicate pink TINT
Helleborus niger - a delightful touch of winter colour for the garden