Peter Dowdall picks his winter favourites for the room outside 

Whether you're a gardening beginner or expert, Irish Examiner columnist Peter Dowdall has the answer to your questions
Peter Dowdall picks his winter favourites for the room outside 

A QUICK search for plants that provide winter colour will bring you a list of evergreens such as the conifers skimmia, euonymus and other plants which will provide winter foliage interest.

All of these certainly have a place in the garden bringing year-round foliage colour some with flowers and most, providing important places of refuge for birds hedgehogs and other beneficial wildlife in the garden.

The other group of plants that will be often suggested are those plants with fabulous winter stem interest. 

Plants such as cornus and salix (dogwoods and willow) come under this heading.

Plants which have beautiful winter stems in the garden are really very striking during this season and can be used in many different ways. They can't be planted individually or en masse, or alternatively can be mixed with darker-coloured evergreens to give good colour contrast.

However, it is a much smaller plant that deserves some attention right now and that is helleborus.

It is the species Helleborus niger which is referred to as the Christmas rose but I am a much bigger fan of the species Helleborus orientalis, which is referred to as the Lenten Rose. Though thought of as more of a spring-flowering plant, I find that it is normally in flower from November or December onwards.

Several tips to growing this plant and getting the best from this plant include removing the foliage in early autumn so that the beautiful flower spikes are not obscured by masses of leaves when they emerge.

The other benefit of removing the foliage is that you will also remove any trace of the helleborus leaf spot that may be present on the plant and is quite unsightly.

The purple hellebore.
The purple hellebore.

Planting them in raised beds is another good idea as it is easier to see the beautiful blooms which open as drooping heads on top of sender stems As always with pants, I think to get the best out of them is to use them with other plants.

Planting Helleborus orientalis underneath a group of golden-stemmed Cornus Midwinter Fire or any colourfully garbed stems looks fantastic, fresh and vibrant, during the harshest and dullest of winter days.

I always remember the garden of my friend Brian Cross, who is now tending to his garden in the clouds having left us several years ago.

Among so many beautiful plant combinations that Brian had in his garden in Glanmire was a beautiful planting of the Lenten Rose underneath some stunning and really striking silver-stemmed birch. I remember asking Brian what his trick was to make the stem of the Birch so vibrant and how to did it shine so brightly?

I was expecting him to tell me that he added something specific to the soil or it was a particularly good cultivar or similar, but anybody who new Brian will not be surprised to learn that he was out washing it with and washing liquid and warm water regularly to keep it so bright and as a result, the hellebores beneath, simply shimmered.

These hellebores can also look very well planted with low-growing, evergreen shrubs, such as skimmia, azalea, pernettya and others which can all provide a good dark background under which the hellebores can really stand out.

They like a neutral to acidic soil which is rich in leaf mould, humus and other organic matter, the richer the soil, the better they will flower. Position them in a semi-shaded position too as they don’t really like to be in full sun.

They will set seed freely and these often germinate very freely in position if the soil is left undisturbed. 

The purple hellebore.
The purple hellebore.

The great benefit of this is that you will quickly develop a good number of hellebores in many different shades and combinations, over a few years as the seedlings won't come true to type. 

That is to say, seedlings won’t produce flowers exactly the same as the parent plant, rather you will get seedling variation which makes for a much nicer and more interesting planting.

Some specific seedlings and flower shades and markings will change hands for significant sums of money, such is the fascination many of us plant anoraks have with the genus.

Flower forms are the quite simple, single form which is probably my favourite and there are also double forms and semi-doubles along with anemone-centred. Have a look for them and before long you will be hooked, drawn in by their magical beauty.

Whichever way you choose to use them and whichever flower shade or form you choose for your garden, do certainly introduce them as they will shine like really bright little jewels above the dark soil over the next few months.

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