11 JANUARY 2003, Page 41

Bravely blooming

Ursula Buchan

0 h. no. It's the hellebore season again, and I am not quite up to it. Studying and cultivating these plants undermines my confidence. It's not that I don't love them. I do. Especially the 'Lenten rose', forms of what we used to call Helleborus orientalis (well, still do, really) but should call Helleborus x hybridus.Who could not love them, considering their bravery in flowering during the first three months of the year and their tolerance, indeed preference for, semi-shaded positions, of which I can offer them a great variety? And the flowers — open cups, like huge buttercups (to which they are closely related), with prominent stamens in the centre, often surrounded by spotting, speckling or blotching — are endlessly fascinating.

Plants of Helleborus x hybridus are not always easy to grow well, for they are best in that oxymoronic construct, a rich, moist, but well-drained, soil. Moreover, greenfly and slugs love them too, and a fungal disease called 'black spot' causes the evergreen leaves to blacken and crinkle as if they were paper to which a match had been set. (By the by, it is not too late to cut all the leaves away, to display the emerging flowers to their best advantage and to try to prevent reinfection next year.) But that is not what undermines me, since these hellebores are no harder to grow well than many other garden plants, and greater efforts are justified when one considers the season of their flowering.

No, the real problem with Lenten hellebores is that they are difficult to identify and name correctly, mainly because they interbreed so enthusiastically with similar species. Of course, that very difficulty makes the hellebore a collector's joy, since some people unaccountably thrive on a challenge. Over the last 50 years or so, a number of botanist/gardeners have seized on them as fit subjects for their minute attention. Margery Fish, Eric Smith, Jim Archibald, Helen Ballard, Elizabeth Strangman. Robin and Sue White (Blackthorn Nursery), Will McLewin (Phedar Nursery) and John Massey (Ashwood Nurseries), amongst others, have all left their mark on hellebores. In the case of the 'Lenten rose', they have achieved more vigorous garden plants, singles with larger than usual flowers and a much wider range of colours, including a very pleasing yellow, as well as picotees. Recently, there has been a flush of new, frilly double or semidouble ('anemone-centred') hellebores.

Helleborus x hybridus seems the favourite subject for development, but good forms of the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and inter-generic hybrids (e.g. Helleborus x nigercors and H. x sternii) have also been bred or selected. Plant hunting, especially in the Balkans and in the Himalayas, has yielded up some strikingly beautiful species, in particular, H. thibetanus, with hanging bells of pink flowers, now the subject of intensive cross-breeding. Hellebore lovers have never had it so good.

Since division is slow and unwelcome to the plant, most hellebores are raised from seed. Even when hand-pollinated, there is always a small percentage which will not come 'true', so the results are usually known as 'strains', rather than given specific cultivar names. Specialists often, sensibly, simply call their plants 'slaty blue', 'maroon' or 'spotted, pink', not wishing to plunge too deeply into the taxonomic mire. One cannot help but applaud this practical approach. After all, is there not something irredeemably prissy about always wanting a name for every plant? Does it really matter to the gardener?

Newly-selected hellebores, especially ones that are given names, are eye-wateringly expensive. So, unless you are very fussy about colour, I suggest that the best way to acquire the core of a collection reasonably cheaply is to buy unnamed seedlings; it is possible, for example, to order five small plug plants for £13.50 from Ashwood Nurseries (01384 401996). These will flower next January. If you allow Lenten roses to seed around, in two to three years you are likely to get a range of colours, most of which will blend happily together, providing only you are ruthless enough to pull out the dingy, dirty pinks, which invariably turn up from time to time. If you cannot wait a year for flowers, then you will find hellebores for sale in threelitre pots in garden centres at this time of year, flowering their heads off. Buy those which are of a shade and flower shape that you like — and never mind what it says on the label.