Winter warmer: Need a sophisticated, yet no-fuss bloom to give your frosty garden a colourful lift? Bring on the hellebores...

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The Independent Online

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 (

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 (

But if your dream is those truly black flowers, try seeking out the black version of the hybrid pictured above from Ashwood Nurseries (, 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,

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,

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,