It sometimes feels as though there is very little colour in my garden over the winter, though I currently have a tide of orange growing up the back fence, where some late nasturtiums suddenly decided to germinate in early September. But their tropical colour will be a thing of memory come the first frost. For real midwinter jewels, I will never do better than hellebores, which flower from around Christmas through until March.
Hellebores come in some of the floral world's most sophisticated colours – pale creams, deep aubergines and lime-greens. Plus, best of all in my book, a deep, unrepentant black. The colours are so subtle and refined I'd assumed the plants themselves would require fusspot levels of care, but this turns out to be plain wrong. For a start, hellebores grow happily in the shade. There aren't many plants you can say this about, but they honestly do. On the other hand, they will also tolerate being in south-facing window boxes over the winter as the bulbs you've planted underneath get growing – they just need a rich soil and enough water on warmer days.
In addition, they have a stand-alone, upside-down beauty. You'll often be advised to plant hellebores in a woodland setting or with other forest-floor species, but the truth is that putting them in a flowerbed at soil level means you'll need to lie on the wet ground to admire the blooms. Hellebores in substantial planters, lifting them a few feet off the ground, give you more oomph for your money.
And they are beautiful enough to justify this sort of singling out. With cupped bowls of colour enclosing a delicate little flower centre, the whirls of stamens are exquisite. There are many species, each with plenty of variety. For absolute beginners, try a hybrid. Garden centres and nurseries will have plenty of choices over the next few weeks, and you will find gorgeous dark purples and blues to choose from. Crocus has a dark blackish-red hybrid, "Harvington Shades of the Night", for £9.99 a plant (www.crocus.co.uk).
For a bright-green zing, try Helleborus foetidus, or stinking hellebore (though it only actually pongs when the leaves are crushed) – plants from £5.99 from Crocus.
Slightly trickier, but utterly beautiful, is Helleborus lividus, a dusky-pink species native only to Majorca with a spectacular yellow star in its centre, and grey-green foliage. Dazzlingly pretty on a cold day, it goes for £3 a plant at Long Acre Nurseries (www.plantsforshade.co.uk).
But if your dream is those truly black flowers, try seeking out the black version of the hybrid pictured above from Ashwood Nurseries (www.ashwood-nurseries.co.uk), simply ticking "black" on the order form. Three-year-old plants are £14.95 each.
Black beauties: More dark beauties
Black hollyhocks ( Alcea rosea)
"Black Knight" is a fabulous way to give a traditional cottage favourite a dramatic makeover. They will flower from June until the first frosts given a well-ventilated, sunny spot. £1.75 for 45 seeds, www.suttons.co.uk
Black opium poppy (Papaver paeoniflorum)
"Black Paeony" combines the exoticism of the sleep- inducing sap with a huge, deep black flower, which will seed itself. £2.19 for 500 seeds, www.thompson-morgan.com
Black taro (Colocasia esculenta)
"Black Magic", with thick black stems and huge leaves that earn it the name "Elephant's Ear", is a tender tropical plant that will even wow those who have grown blasé about exotic planting. £9.50 a plant, www.deserttojungle.comReuse content