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Helle's angel so heavenly.

Byline: BILL CHUDZIAK

GARDENERS are quite mad. Take, for example, the dedicated horticulturist who dodged bullets in war-torn Bosnia to collect rare hellebores.

Mercifully, we don't have to brave snipers to acquire a hellebore, which is the ideal plant to cheer up a winter garden. Just pop down to your favourite garden centre and pick up a Lenten Rose (helleborus orientalis).

There are several species, all worth having, but the Lenten Rose is the earliest to flower. They belong in the ranunculaceae plant family, which includes buttercups, clematis, anemones and delphiniums. Most hellebores come from Eastern Europe and the Balkans where they grow in beech woodland and flower in February, well before the overhead canopy thickens.

Many gardeners have been seduced by their nodding, demure flowers. They vary in colour from deepest maroon through to white with yellows, pinks, creams, reds and greens.

The centre of each bloom is often stippled with dark spots on the inside. This can lead to dramatic contrasts and the green-stippled reds are a favourite of mine. Particularly famous breeding lines of hellebores are the Ballard types, especially the black forms. Backlit by the morning sun, they take on a jewel-like aura and their ruby saucers bring real panache. The luxurious flowers can be up to 4in across and look far too exotic to be around so early in the year.

If you make the effort to improve the soil, hellebores will even colonise dry woodland and form impressive patches. One species in particular thrives in awkward areas, even under trees. The Corsican hellebore, Helleborus corsicus, is indispensable and once you have seen the large heads of luminous green flowers you'll be hooked.

Which is just as well, because you should plant them in groups of three or more, as cross fertilisation with other Corsican hellebores is essential to produce seedlings. Like most other hellebores, this plant will self-seed and a few plants in a gravel path will go a long way.

Their pewter-green leaves are marbled with creams and greens, and, as they are evergreen, interest remains throughout the year.

Helleborus foetidus (the stinking hellebore) is a top-class perennial that exists in several forms. At the risk of being accused of favouritism, the Scottish-raised plant, Helleborus foetidus 'Wester Flisk' has superb hand-like leaves. They can reach 6in across and are suffused with ruddy orange. The thick flower stem can reach 2ft 6in, supporting stunning pendulous bells. They are bright green and each flower has a prominent red lipstick ring around its mouth.

If you plant a few together and keep the ground under their leaves clear of weeds, the chances are they will multiply. If you allow the ripe seeds to fall to the ground, the following April you should have a cress-like mat of seedlings.

Carefully dig them up and you can either pot them for sale or transplant them to bare patches of soil.

The best collection I have seen is on the M90 near Perth. Just off junction 10 southbound, there is a large, wild colony that has spread up a stony hillside

Inevitably, collections have been amassed and two hellebores have formed one noteworthy hybrid. The Corsican hellebore has been crossed with the tender Helleborus lividus to make Helleborus x sternii.

This evergreen plant will eventually make a splendid bun-shaped mound up to 3ft tall and 4ft across.

The rugged leaves are enhanced with rose tones that suffuse into the green blooms. This is one of my top ten perennials .

They adore woodland-type soil and the planting hole should be taken out to a spade's depth and width.

Break up the sub-soil and incorporate plenty of organic matter into the base of the hole.

Place the crown an inch below the finished soil level and try to spread the roots out into the hole. Tease the roots. Backfill around them with a 50-50 mix of garden soil and compost, then gently firm the ground with your fist.

Hellebores have questing root systems that will reach 2ft down into the soil and resent disturbance, so get it right first time. Believe me, it's well worth the effort.
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Title Annotation:Gardening
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Feb 11, 2001
Words:686
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