Winter turning into spring is one of the most evocative and wonderful times in the garden. Some of the earliest flowers are the hellebores which begin to grow through milder spells in the height of winter, and can be had in flower from December right through to April or even May. These are plants of great substance and character in the garden, ultimately forming strong and long-lived clumps if cared for. They are fascinating to collect, with a growing diversity of flower colours and forms – black, white, green, yellow, red, doubles, picotees, spotted within, or with coloured nectaries. Though many gardeners prefer types that hold their flowers up and show the markings within, their more natural nodding habit is well designed to protect them from harsh weather. Like the snowdrops that grow with them, there is great delight in stooping to hold the flowers up and study them closely. A famous French gardener is said to use an angled mirror on a walking stick specifically to enjoy the markings of hellebores in the winter garden.
The enthusiast will also become drawn to some of the less common species of hellebores such as H. viridis, a rare British native, which can have almost glowing green flowers set against much deeper green foliage. In the dry south-east H. multifidis which grows in the hotter and drier climes of the Balkans can make a spectacular foliage plant, its leaves cut into innumerable narrow leaflets almost like a miniature palm. This too has small green flowers very early in the year, which for me sadly are often devoured by mice for their sweet nectar before they set any seed. One of the loveliest of all, though usually too tender for most gardens, is the Majorcan H. lividus, effectively a small and more colourful form of the Corsican hellebore (H. argutifolius). It can have beautifully silver-marbled leaves – like cyclamen – and extraordinary flowers of purplish-pink without and apple-green within. I grow it in a gritty loam in deep pots, kept on a sunny patio except in the cold depths of winter.
Hybrids of this and its relatives with the Christmas Rose, H. niger, are hardy plants of great class and vigour, well worth acquiring though slow to produce and quite expensive. All of this group are best in a warm, fairly sunny and well drained spot which gets quite dry in summer.
Snowdrops go with hellebores like fine wine with a meal and can command similar prices! Their pristine white bells with subtle but ever-so-interesting markings are the epitome of winter. Why should they hold us so much in their thrall? It must be their simplicity and purity in the often harsh days of the new year.
Remarkably quickly one can move from admiring wide drifts of the native Galanthus nivalis in country churchyards, to conversing deeply about the merits of ‘Merlin’ over ‘Magnet’ or whether ‘Chadwick’s Cream’ goes with ‘Blewbery Tart’. My favourite combination could well be ‘Big Boy’ walking out with ‘Long Tall Sally’! It is not only the flowers of snowdrops that are valuable in the garden; their leaves can be very striking too. In G. plicatus and elwesii they are broad and long and often coloured silvery-grey or blue-green. On the bank next to the rock garden at the Royal Horticultural Garden, Wisley, these make a superb groundcover under big tall oaks, mixed with crocus, cyclamen, hellebores and other winter flowers.
At the other extreme, the petite G. gracilis has thin grassy twisted leaves and makes a pretty addition to a small alpine trough or raised bed. Some snowdrops, like G. ikariae from Greece, have green glossy leaves quite at odds with most of their relatives. All in all they are entirely captivating in the garden.
With the snowdrops and hellebores rise a harmony of other winter and early spring flowers. In open and sunny places small bulbs – crocus, iris, ipheion, muscari and narcissus – come to the fore. Some will grow happily in grass where they can look particularly well suited. Others needing a more gritty, well-drained spot will do well with small sun-loving perennials and alpines. The crocus are especially alluring with different species flowering from autumn through to spring. I have many in a round bed in the middle of the lawn where they are less susceptible to the burrowings of mice and other pests. Very keen growers keep them in a cold greenhouse where their beautiful chalice-like flowers will not be shattered by the often blustery winter weather.