Sunny nature of the stinking hellebore

Some are wild, others just wildly coloured. Anna Pavord takes a close look at an old-fashioned companion for snowdrop and camellia
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The Independent Online
Seedlings as thick as mustard and cress have sprung up round the base of the handsome hellebore H foetidus `Wester Flisk', growing on the bank in our garden. I gather, after a quick bit of swotting up, that this variety with red-tinged stems comes true from seed if it is growing far enough away from any other forms. Some serious potting up is in order.

These particular hellebores cost about £4 each, though our seedlings will take a couple of years to get to any useful size. The first little triangle of true foliage is only just emerging between the two splayed out arms of the seedlings' first leaves.

In the best types of `Wester Flisk' the stems' reddish colour drifts up into the base of the hand-shaped leaves and sometimes up into the flower heads. The leaves should be greyish rather than blackish-green and are often narrower than those of ordinary H foetidus.

Mine isn't the best type. Perhaps some of the progeny will do better in the colouring department, but I am not ruthless enough to be a true plantsman. Fortunately Mamie Walker was. She is the person who first discovered the red-stemmed form growing in her garden at Wester Flisk, near Newburgh in Fife. That was in the 1970s and 20 years of rigorous selection has improved the variety hugely.

Mrs Walker found that the red colour was more pronounced in dry seasons than in wet. Perhaps that is why mine is looking a bit wishy-washy. Wet weather certainly seems to bring on the black spot. You can cut off the old foliage of the Lenten hellebores, H orientalis, but you do not have that option with H foetidus.

This stinking hellebore is a British native - very fashionable now. I have never seen it growing in the wild, though William Keble Martin, doyen of writers on British wildflowers, says that it grows "in bushy places on calcareous soils in S and W England". The Rev C A Johns, my other great mentor, considers it a "doubtful native", found near houses.

There are, however, masses of the wild green hellebore, H viridis, in the woods round here. The foliage is very good: finer and more toothed than the stinking hellebore's. It generally flowers later, March-April, not a showy flower, green with dark blotches at the base of the petals round the boss of cream stamens.

The advantage of both these hellebores is that they thrive in heavy, damp soil and don't mind shade. I've seen them looking good with white wood anemones. Snowdrops are obvious companions, as are blue-flowered pulmonarias which are already in full bloom.

The flowers of the stinking hellebore have been badly affected by some fungal infection. It seems to start where the individual flower meets its thin drooping stem and the brown disfiguration spreads in both directions, along the stem and into the flower. I've been nipping them off rather than spraying, but you could use a fungicide such as mancozeb or benomyl, drenching the plants thoroughly.

One of the best sights of the week was the sheets of Lenten hellebores growing under shrubs and trees in the woodland garden at Knightshayes, the National Trust garden near Tiverton in Devon. The head gardener, Michael Hickson, said that they get relatively little self seeding in their colonies now, because the leaf litter is so thick and the space between the plants so limited. You could see, though, where different seedlings had cropped up in the past, some with markedly more upward facing flowers than others. I'm not too worried by the fact that the flowers of this species usually droop. It prolongs the pleasure of lifting them up to admire the stippling of the petals.

The huge aralia that used to be the focus of one massed planting of hellebores is now reduced to a single leaning branch. It was used as a Tarzan swing last summer and wasn't up to the job. But maples and hamamelis, early rhododendrons and camellias made excellent foils for the rich sweeps of hellebores.

The most overwhelming sight in the garden was a Magnolia campbellii just bursting out of its fat buds, each furry package big enough to make a meal. The flowers, ludicrously exotic, lolled voluptuously against the burst cases of the buds, easing out their petals of brilliant magenta. I'd be tempted to plant a mass of Lenten hellebores in shades of deep slatey purple under this particular magnolia. It would be a rich diet but that is what we need after the starved months of winter. Knightshayes Court is open from 1 April to 31 Oct daily (11am- 5.30pm, admission garden and grounds only £2.80; admission including house £4.80).

Hellebores are one of the specialities at Green Cottage, Lydney, in Gloucestershire, where the Babers have an informal one-acre garden open tomorrow (12.30- 4pm, admission £1.50). Full details are in the familiar yellow book, Gardens of England and Wales. A new edition (£3) has just come out, thicker than ever, with particulars of 3,280 gardens open this season.

Four hundred of these are opening for the first time including Rock House, Elberton, in Avon where the Gunnerys are restoring a walled garden of about an acre. They have snowdrops, primroses and a good selection of hellebores. The garden is open tomorrow (2-6pm, admission £1). There are more than 50 named cultivars of the Lenten h ellebore, H orientalis, at Long Thatch, Warnford, West Meon, in Hampshire, where the Shorts have a two-acre garden. It is open tomorrow (2-5pm, admission £1.50). West Meon is dangerously near Alresford where the Blackthorn Nursery specialises in hellebores. I am not surprised the Shorts have 50 of them. The nursery opens this weekend and will then remain open Fridays and Saturdays only (9am-5pm) until the end of October.

At Greystone Cottage in Culmore Lane, Kingwood Common, near Henley, Oxfordshire, the Roxburghs have a two-acre garden set in woods, with a woodland walk lined with hellebores, azaleas, and various kinds of narcissus. There is also an arched walk between 80-year-old pear trees. The garden is open tomorrow (2-6pm, admission £1).

For a full account of hellebores, their likes, dislikes and history, read Hellebores by Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman (David & Charles, £16.99).