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Homes & Gardening; Lanten Roses are blooming perfect for cheap thrills.

Byline: JANET WHEATCROFT

BY far the showiest plants in my garden at this time of year are the hybrid hellebores, the so-called Lenten Roses.

In their sheltered spots, they start their display around Hogmanay and go on flowering for several months.

Most were in full bloom when they were swamped by several inches of frozen snow a couple of weeks ago.

I was sure their fleshy stems and succulent flowers couldn't survive such an onslaught and that would be the end of this year's display.

But when the thaw came, they lifted up their beautiful heads, shrugged off the cold and continued to flower as if nothing had happened.

I suppose that, having originated in the freezing Balkans, our climate holds no fears for them.

As recently as 20 years ago, they scarcely figured in our gardens and never appeared in garden centres. Colour ranges were limited - most were simply white or greeny-white.

I remember how excited I was when an old lady with a wonderful cottage garden gave me a precious piece of a deep purple plant that flowered just after Christmas.

I thought it a thrilling plant and still do - I now have several large plants from my original slip.

So if you ever see the form 'Early Purple' for sale, snap it up. There are plenty of dark hellebores around nowadays, but none flower as early as this fine old-fashioned variety.

Once the plant-breeders got their hands on hellebores, they changed out of all recognition.

Modern gardeners can now choose from a stunning array of colours, from slatey-black through plummy red and delicate pink to pale lemon.

Many are spotted and stippled, and there are even starry doubles and anemone-centred forms. Like single peonies and blue poppies, they simply ooze star quality.

Sadly, they don't come cheap. You can easily pay pounds 20 for a single plant of a named cultivar and, unless you're a plantaholic, it's just not worth it.

Far better value for money are the unnamed, much cheaper seedlings that are for sale in garden centres and nurseries at the moment. But as with all seedlings, the quality is variable, so buy plants that are already in flower.

That way, you can see what you're getting and then increase your stock by raising your own plants from seed.

It's not difficult if you know the tricks of the trade. Hellebore seed needs to be completely fresh to germinate. In midsummer, look out for the fat seed pods and collect them just as they start to split.

Keep them in an open paper bag until the seeds spill out, then sow them immediately in seed compost. Keep them in a cool place outdoors and don't let them dry out. Some will germinate in autumn, some the next spring.

Prick them out into pots, touching only the leaves - any handling of the stems leads to instant damping off - and they should be planted out the following spring.

I have a long damp border below a holly hedge planted as a hellebore walk. My seedlings all came from a wine-red plant, but the colours range from black through to white.

Backed with white foxgloves for summer interest, the border's one of my success stories. And the best thing is, it didn't cost me a penny.

Q&A Q CAN you please settle an argument and save a loving marriage from going into decline? Should you prune Salix integra Hakuru Nishiki or not? The books all disagree.

A I SHOULD hate to add to Joan Burnie's workload, so here goes. You have done very well to keep this fine willow going - they are not that easy.

For best results, you should prune it about now, taking off one third to two thirds of the growth. That will give the best- quality foliage, strengthen the plant and produce more of the catkins.

But if you don't prune, it will do the shrub no harm at all. All that will happen is that it won't look quite so good.

So, happily, you are both right. But my advice would be to cut it back, which will make it look even better year by year.

If you have a gardening problem, write to Gardenlife at Daily Record, One Central Quay, Glasgow G3 8DA
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 17, 2001
Words:712
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