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Bursts of winter colour

PUBLISHED: 11:14 10 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:14 10 February 2014

Hellebores come in a profusion of shapes, colours and sizes

Hellebores come in a profusion of shapes, colours and sizes

Archant

Winter needn’t be without flowers. Philippa Pearson delights in the charms of delicate snowdrops in Benington and Walkern and sumptuous hellebores at Levens Green

Winter can be a bit of no-go time in the garden. Short days and unpredictable weather hardly tempt us to enjoy this gardening season, but some plants have a remarkable resilience to the cold weather and exude masses of charm in the borders when little else is worthy of a second look.

Snowdrops are the definitive winter flower and their exquisite flowers lift the spirits during the coldest months of the year, with varieties blooming from January to late March.

Benington Lordship near Stevenage is one of the most popular gardens in the UK to see massed planting of snowdrops. Set in seven acres, the garden at the Georgian manor house with the remains of a Norman castle and moat, is carpeted with snowdrops and opens every February to showcase this stunning display. The gardens originally began opening for ‘snowdrop Sundays’ more than 100 years ago and now opens daily throughout February.

Generations of the Bott family have planted snowdrops in the gardens but it is the area around the moat and old ruins that have the thickest carpets. Centuries ago, monks brought snowdrops from Europe and Turkey to the UK and planted them around their monasteries.

‘The moat was really overgrown with sycamore seedlings several years ago,’ says Susanna Bott, who now looks after the gardens with head gardener Richard Webb and other helpers.

‘Goats were used to clear away the overgrown moat and gradually the snowdrops started to bloom and spread.’

Throughout the gardens, new borders and other areas are being created to hold species snowdrops and Susanna is always looking for the chance to swap plants with other snowdrop fans. Plants are named in the gardens for enthusiasts and more than 100 different varieties can be found.

One of Susanna’s favourite snowdrops is ‘Mighty Atom’, notable for its huge flower heads up to two inches across. In the Spring Garden, borders have been planted with this dazzling snowdrop to create a generous display. ‘It is such a huge flower and looks stunning planted en masse,’ says Susanna, who adores the way snowdrops just creep around, happily spreading into borders and in all areas of the garden. ‘They are so delicate, so lovely,’ she enthuses, ‘the first flower of the year and once they are over then everything else starts to come alive in the garden. Wonderful.’

Snowdrops and winter flowers are also on display at Walkern Hall, two miles north of Benington, in the winter woodland garden. Set in eight acres, snowdrops and aconites carpet the woodland floor making it a spectacular sight in February. This medieval hunting park is known more for its established trees such as the tulip trees and a magnificent London plane tree, which dominates the garden, and opens in February for the National Gardens Scheme for a second year.

The Lenten Rose, helleborus x hybridus, pushes up flower buds from as early as mid-December and then blooms into May when shiny foliage continues the interest.

A heavy frost can level the flower stalks to the ground but, as the winter sunshine gently lifts the temperature, the stems miraculously recover.

Lorna Jones of Levens Green near Ware became interested in hellebores more than 20 years ago when her sister gave her a clump of plants from the cottage she was moving from and she soon became fascinated by them and started to breed new plants.

By focusing on details such as flower shape, size and intensity of colour, leaf characteristics, flowering period and disease resistance, Lorna is now acknowledged as one of the finest breeders of hellebores in the UK.

Each flower is different and unique with the best hellebores produced from seed strains rather than named varieties. Flowers are single or double blooms and colour ranges from pure white to pink, red, purple and blue-black. The splashes and markings add to their charm.

Growing hellebores from seed needs patience, as it takes three to four years for the plants to flower.

If all this seems too slow a process, luckily for us Lorna has an annual sale of plants at her nursery, Hertfordshire Hellebores, during February and March. Plants are three to four-years-old and in flower, so you can plant them instantly when you get home.

‘It’s often been said,’ laughs Lorna, ‘that hellebores are highly addictive things!’ If you haven’t discovered the winter charms of hellebores, the outstanding range Lorna grows at her nursery will surely tempt you to try some in your garden.

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