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Is there anything more exciting, I wonder, more challenging and certainly more rewarding, than the creation of a winter garden in this most benign of climates that many of us enjoy in the Pacific Northwest? Certainly the term “winter wonderland” can hardly be thought to attain more significance than in this part of the world, even though it be normally applied to the snow-capped mountains and meadows sparkling brightly in the brilliant winter sunshine of the eastern half of the continent.
The phrase “from sea to sea” carries an especial meaning when applied to our own horticultural and botanical aspirations – and with us the possibilities are endless. From winter and spring-flowering bulbs – colchicum, Scottish bluebell, winter aconite – to the yellow-flowering Jasminum nudiflorum, the orange, yellow and brilliant reds of the slender branches of the various Cornus, the spidery flowers of Hamamelis, all those colours of narcissus to – and here is the nub of the question – the various hellebores, each with a distinctive flower of red, purple, pink or, in this case, white, the Helleborus niger or Christmas rose (hardy to zone 4).
H. niger is probably the first of the genus to flower, bearing its profusion of blooms in early November through to the end of December and quite probably beyond. All hellebores are of the buttercup family (as are clematis, monkshood, aconite and delphinium) and benefit from a regular application of rotted leaf-mould or manure and, in the case of H. niger, require an alkaline or neutral soil – always moist and well-drained, of course.
We read that H. niger used to be planted near country-cottage doors, so as to ward off evil spirits, which seems a very good idea to me. All species are much at home in woodland areas, revel in the dappled sunshine of such an environment and, if allowed to go to seed, will spread happily in the surrounding areas. Indeed, I have seen patches of hellebores some 3 m (10 ft.) in diameter, and a wonderful sight it is, with their massed flowers of brilliant white, wine-red, purple or, as in the case of H. argutifolius (formerly H. corsicus and hardy to zone 6), a somewhat sinister green. Helleborus x nigercors is a hybrid of H. niger and H. argutifolius and hardy to zone 6.
They are tricky – indeed, risky – to divide. It’s much safer to let them go to seed, and within two or three years, they will be flowering happily for you. Remember to keep that underlying soil moist and well-drained and you will have no trouble at all.